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Imagine being able to add something to your to-do list, turn on the lights or set your alarm just by thinking about it? As unbelievable as it may sound, this is what the future will look like thanks to the incredible developments in brain-computer interface (BCI) technology.
BCI technology connects a brain and a device, enabling signals from the brain to direct activity in the device, whether it’s a computer cursor or prosthetic limb. According to Lara Fernandez, PhD candidate from Deakin University’s Cognitive Neuroscience Unit (CNU), BCI works by ‘running brain signals through a series of computer algorithms that then translate these signals into a form that the machine understands’.
The history of BCIs can be traced back to 1924, when Dr Hans Berger invented the electroencephalogram (EEG). EEGs use sensors on caps that fit onto the top of a user’s head and were the first method to successfully measure and track brainwaves, making them essential to the development and use of BCIs.
Since then, exciting developments in the technology have continued. In 1976 we saw how BCI could be used for communication, in 1999 BCI was used for the first time to aid a person with quadriplegia and in 2008 the first voiceless telephone calls were developed.
Fernandez and her colleagues at the CNU are some of the researchers making inroads with this exciting technology. The research group’s focus is on using brain stimulation, neurophysiological and neuroimaging techniques to explore the relationship between the brain, behaviour and cognition. Their goal is to develop novel interventions that use current neuroscience approaches and understandings for conditions such as autism spectrum disorder, language impairment and developmental coordination disorder.
As the capabilities of this technology have increased, more opportunities for its real-world application across multiple industries have become evident. Fernandez says there are two main industries adopting BCI technology. ‘Two areas that are showing increasing interest in BCI are assistive health and defence technologies,’ she says. ‘In health, BCI research is showing promising results in the development of brain-controlled wheelchairs for people with physical disabilities. These typically use machine-learning algorithms to transform specific brain signals into signals that manoeuvre the chair. Neural feedback in conjunction with robotic devices may also be used in rehabilitation programs, for example, in motor training for stroke patients.’
The defence industry has been investing in BCI since the early 1970s. As Fernandez explains, ‘In the defence industry, an emphasis on removing the human from direct combat, in conjunction with enhancing human cognitive, motor and sensory capabilities, is driving BCI research in this area. A further driver is competition, where it is expected that those militaries that adopt BCI technologies will be at a significant advantage over those who do not.’ Some examples of how BCI technology is being investigated for use in the military include enabling soldiers to communicate silently through their thoughts, and controlling vehicles and machinery in warzones from a safe location.
Entertainment and gaming is yet another area that BCI technology has the ability to significantly enhance. The technology will be able to provide new active interaction styles, or enhance game experience through passive BCIs.
However, while BCI is advancing at a rapid rate, there is a lot more work to be done on perfecting the technology before it becomes prevalent in our everyday lives.
‘It’s emerging definitely, but it’s really hard to predict when BCI will become a part of our daily routines,’ says Fernandez. ‘It’s dependent on so many factors, such as overcoming issues with hardware and software capabilities, government funding for universities and industry, and just the acceptance of it by the general population. We’re trying to model the brain in many ways, so we need to understand the brain first. With BCIs we’re still trying to come up to ways to interface with the brain effectively.’
‘That being said, we’ll see some major advancement in the next 10 to 20 years, as a greater understanding of the benefits of the technology leads to more research, which will lead to greater results,’ Fernandez concludes.
Find out more about Lara Fernandez’s research in to neural connectivity using Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) and electroencephalography (EEG) in the video below.
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