Where’s My Brain-Computer Interface?

From thieves creeping into your dreams to steal valuable information to Neo entering the Matrix to save humanity, having your mind controlled by a computer interface is an alarming reality in many science fiction movies.

In reality, the intersection of computing power and the human brain and body is much more complicated, and much less insidious. From non-invasive options, such as electroencephalography (measuring electrical activity on top of the scalp) to microprocessors implanted directly into the brain, researchers around the world are investigating ways to provide control and feedback to the mind. The technology currently being developed is not for world domination, but instead to help restore senses, such as hearing, or improve the use of prosthetics for amputees.

“The technology is getting very mature, and we’re at the verge of a new era of brain interface,” said Euisik Yoon, professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at University of Michigan and biomedical sensors and subsystems thrust leader at Center for Wireless Integrated MicroSystems, an NSF research center.

One of the best known neuroprosthetic device is the cochlear implant, which involves an electrode being implanted into the cochlea that is then connected to a microphone and speech processor that bypasses the ear to help the deaf hear better. For neuroprosthetics, the options are not as advanced, although researchers are working on everything from microchips implanted directly into the brain to prosthetics that communicate with nerve endings on the affected limb. None of these advances come anywhere close to the natural ability of the human body.

Yoon and his colleagues are looking at a microprocessor that could sit on the surface of the brain, but not within it, to access neuroactivity. The U.S. Department of Defense is particularly interested in this work for wounded soldiers coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan.

There are many issues to consider when putting devices inside of the body. Yoon said that they are still studying how the brain tissue will react to having an implanted electrode embedded for decades. Understanding how the brain functions is also a challenge. Although they know which region controls movement, the more detail neuroscientists can have about neural activity, the better they extract pertinent information about the task their looking to control.

Feedback is particularly important, said Yoon. It’s not enough to have the brain be able to execute on the thought “move my arm,” but it should also be able to take in information from the fingers and remember movements, just as a brain would do for a real arm. Providing that feedback loop for the brain is still an active area of research.

Yoon said at this point researchers can control crude arm movements, but are still working on issues like dexterous fingers. Controlling entire bodies would be a formidable research effort. There are some efforts to use brain computer interfaces to better understand, and maybe some day treat, addiction. But like brain-controlled prosthetics, it is still early days.

As for interfering with dreams, “Who would need that?” Yoon ponders.


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