Brain Computer Interface: What does it mean?

By Sharon Niv, Ph.D.

What is Brain Computer Interface (BCI)?

Brain Computer Interface (BCI) refers to a set of brain recording techniques used to connect the brain to a machine that can interpret and translate that activity. Such direct communication between the brain and machines allows for a wide spectrum of outcomes, from playing video games with one’s mind to assisting disabilities such as paralysis or blindness.

How does BCI actually work?

BCI relies on direct recording of real-time neural activity. Different forms of recording vary in their levels of invasiveness. The most invasive BCI methodology requires surgical implantation of recording devices directly into the brain’s grey matter. Such methods have been used to restore vision to individuals who have lost their ability to see, as well as to direct neuroprosthetics, such as robotic limbs for individuals with amputations. For example, activity in the brain’s primary motor area can be directly recorded and used to power a robotic arm. With practice, an individual can learn to wield such precise mind control over the robotic arm that he could perform such delicate actions as picking up grapes.

Noninvasive BCI methods often rely on electroencephalography (EEG), a method of recording electrical brain activity from the surface of the scalp. Successful research has been conducted using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which provide better spatial visualization of the brain than EEG, or magnetoencephalography (MEG), which provides better localization. Although both methods show promise as future therapeutic approaches, MEG and fMRI are both far more expensive than EEG and require large laboratory equipment, precluding them from current home use.

Clinical uses for EEG BCI

Using EEG clinically, researchers have succeeded in treating a wide range of clinical neurological and psychiatric conditions, ranging from attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), to posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), to epilepsy. Using BCI EEG measurement, individuals’ brain activity can be recorded and then presented back to the individual in visual or auditory form. Using biofeedback principles, the representation of brain activity changes as the activity changes, and individuals can use this representation to learn how to gain more control over the patterns of their brain activity. As a simple example, a child with ADHD may exhibit lower levels of beta frequency wave activity in his frontal cortex, meaning that his ability to concentrate is lower than that of other children. By measuring his frontal beta wave activity with a BCI device that allows him to play a game with his mind, the child learns how to produce more beta waves in his frontal cortex as he is rewarded for doing so with success in the game. Hence, the child intrinsically increases his brain’s capacity for concentration without reliance on medication or other stimulants 

In addition to biofeedback approaches such as this, sophisticated EEG BCI has been used to help patients with epilepsy learn how to anticipate and reduce their number of seizures. Individuals with Locked-In syndrome, unable to move or communicate, have learned to produce synthesized speech through such methods, as well

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