Brain-Computer Interface Hold a Promising Future

Brain-computer interface (BCI) technology is a growing field, which is estimated to be worth more than $1 billion globally. Frost & Sullivan research indicates that the health care segment occupies the largest share (52%) of this market and is expected to draw the highest demand in coming years. Read about some of the latest advances.

Brain-computer interface (BCI) technology is a growing field of interest with medical applications ranging from prevention, detection, and diagnosis to rehabilitation and restoration. A BCI is a combination of hardware and software communications that allow humans to control external devices such as computers through cerebral activity alone. Extensive BCI research is being done to develop devices that aid people with disabilities, particularly those affected by neurological and neuromuscular conditions such as spinal cord injury, brain strokes, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

Commonly Used BCI Technologies

Electroencephalography (EEG), which records electrical activity directly from the brain through electrodes placed on the scalp, remains the top neuroimaging method for BCI-based products because it is extremely cost-effective and portable. Magnetoencephalography (MEG) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) have shown promise in BCI research due to their non-invasive characteristics and good temporal and spatial resolution. MEG uses magnetometers to capture the magnetic fields produced by the brain’s electrical activity; fMRI uses MRI technology to detect changes in the brain’s blood flow.

Some of the most promising BCI application areas are explained below.

Wheelchair Assistance

Disabilities affecting locomotion degrade quality of life and reduce life expectancy. Scientists have been considering invasive and non-invasive approaches to help people who use wheelchairs.

The non-invasive approach is preferred because of its ease of use and limited or no discomfort. Paraplegics or those with other locomotor disabilities can drive wheelchairs using EEG-enabled BCI devices. Users can activate three levels of assistance with a BCI-powered wheelchair: obstacle avoidance, collision avoidance and orientation recovery. Laser scanners on the wheelchair enable a degree of autonomy by detecting potential obstacles, allowing the device to accordingly evaluate the situation. The main challenge with these BCI-powered wheelchairs is the lack of accurate, real-time control because of infrequent signals and low information transfer rate.

As a result, research continues in the development of invasive devices that are driven by user decisions and overcome the commonly faced low bit rate of non-invasive BCIs. Invasive BCI systems include electrodes that are implanted in the brain. These solutions have yet to evolve completely because current offerings can be painful and require regulatory approval before use. Proof of efficacy requires extensive clinical trials that are costly and time-consuming, which can discourage some manufacturers. The University of Twente in the Netherlands is among the academic institutions exploring the use of BCI systems in wheelchair mobility. Similar research in prosthesis and environment control is continuing at the University of California with the goal of helping paraplegics regain basic brain-controlled motion.

Motor Restoration to Treat Several Neurological Disorders

Evaluation of brain signals through EEG recording can help treat spinal cord injuries and neurological disorders such as migraines and cluster headaches, and can aid in neuroprosthetics.

  • Migraines and cluster headaches:  Most headaches, especially cluster headaches that can be extremely painful, involve the trigeminal nerve underneath the skin of the forehead. A BCI device with electrodes can stimulate the trigeminal nerve and its branches using a short electric current to redirect the motor nerve. Stimulation through a BCI-enabled device can produce a calming effect that can help reduce the number of migraine attacks.
  • Spinal cord injury: Motor restoration through the incorporation of neurostimulation with BCI devices can help alleviate psychological suffering. SCS is an implantable device that exerts electrical impulses to the spinal cord to mask the pain signals going to the brain termed as paresthesia. Spinal cord stimulation is one the most common techniques to treat the pain associated with various indications such as failed back surgery syndrome, (FBSS), complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS) and diabetic neuropathy that arises from the nerves connecting the brain and the spinal cord.
  • Neuroprosthetics: Functional electrical stimulation is a novel way of restoring movement, such as grasping, with the help of a neuroprosthesis. An EEG-enabled BCI device can analyze beta oscillations, and the output signal can activate the lower or upper extremity.
  • Neurofeedback: The relatively new approach can treat neurological disorders such as depression, autism, anxiety, sleep disorders, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and schizophrenia by facilitating the retraining of brainwave patterns using a feedback mechanism. A key feature of neurofeedback is the ability to gain control over specific areas of the brain to induce behavioral changes. Neurofeedback training sessions involve the placement of electrodes on the scalp and earlobe. The patient then watches a display on the computer screen and the training sessions teach the patient to slowly retrain their brainwave pattern. California-based Emotiv Inc. develops portable systems to monitor a user’s brain in real time to aid cognitive functions. It currently offers products for patients suffering from ADHD.

Restoring the Sense of Touch

Researchers from the University of Chicago have developed a BCI solution that could restore the sense of touch for paralyzed patients. The  solution  consists  of  a  robotic arm  that  is  connected  to  the  user’s brain  via BCI technology. This solution is based on biomimetic mapping-based BCIs that aim to capture the natural relationship between cortical activity and volitional arm or hand movement that is then used to control a prosthetic arm or orthosis. The robotic arm provides a sensory feedback based on the patterns recorded in the system transmitted from the electrodes that are implanted in the brain of the user. The FDA is in the process of approving similar devices for human trials.

Speech Recognition from Neural Networks

Speech recognition technologies are among the most widely adopted across many industries. Researchers from the University of Bremen, Germany, are exploring the development of a BCI solution that can understand neural signals suitable for automatic speech recognition (ASR) to help people with speech impairments. EEG, fMRI, MEG and near infrared spectroscopy are being investigated as enabling technologies. The concept is still in the early stages of research. Research  has been demonstrated  with  epilepsy  patients,  and  the capability  of  decoding  brain  signals  for  ASR  accurately  was validated.

Artificial Neural Networks Using Memristors

Researchers from the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom are developing a computational system to mimic the human brain. The low-power, nanoscale memristor device could be integrated into prosthetics and implants to detect neural signals and produce movement. The research is still in its early stages.

What’s the Future?

The BCI market, which is estimated to be worth more than $1 billion globally, includes health care, entertainment and gaming, neuromarketing and environment control. Frost & Sullivan research indicates that the health care segment occupies the largest share (52%) of this market and is expected to draw the highest demand in coming years. Advancements in prosthetics and implantable electronics are expected to complement BCI developments. Patent filings in the areas of neuroprosthetics, rehabilitation, epilepsy treatment and robotics have been extremely promising in the last five years, but classification of any BCI-based device as medical therapy requires regulatory approval. Manufacturers’ willingness to invest in clinical trials will be crucial for success.

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