Initiating Action With Only Brain Power
Every couple of years I revisit the advancement of brainspray capture techniques – technology that allows people to direct movement or thoughts with only brain activity. The progress in the past two years has been impressive.
There are new cutting-edge brain sensor and management technologies, like the astrocyte stimulators and neurograins, and then there are brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) that you can buy online. People are overcoming severe disabilities with BCIs and the military may use them for multiple functions. In short, brain-reading equipment is already here and finding new uses.
Implementation of BCIs was attempted as early as 1973, when a Dr. Vidal published his study of an EEG-based system. The industry publication Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience notes that recent research application of BCI technology has involved such diverse applications as brain fingerprinting for lie detection, detecting drowsiness for improving human working performances, estimating reaction time, controlling virtual reality, quadcopters, and video games, and driving drones and humanoid robots.
The cutting edge of brainspray capture moves out further every year. For example, last summer, Brown University announced a new concept for future BCI systems. Rather than strap a few sensors to the scalp, the team employs “a coordinated network of independent, wireless microscale neural sensors, each about the size of a grain of salt, to record and stimulate brain activity. The sensors, dubbed “neurograins,” independently record the electrical pulses made by firing neurons and send the signals wirelessly to a central hub, which coordinates and processes the signals.” The neurograins are low-energy-consuming, tiny computer chips with wireless signaling capabilities that the Brown team was able to use for both recording neural signals from a living brain and stimulating the brain in hopes of being able to restore brain function. According to Wired, “The ability to record from many more neurons could enable much finer motor control and expand what’s currently possible with brain-controlled devices. Researchers could also use them in animals to learn how different brain regions speak to each other.” The scientists will now work on making the “grains” even smaller and less intrusive.
Scientists at University College London have found a way to affect specific brain functions through magnetism, using a specialized brain cell called an astrocyte. These star-shaped astrocytes outnumber neurons in our brains 5 to 1, and can interact with more than a million brain synapses at a time. The researchers injected micromagnets directly into rat brains and guided the magnets to sit directly on the surface of astrocytes. They then used an external magnet to trigger mechanical stimulation of astrocyte cell activity. According to The Daily Beast, “As a result, the micromagnet-laden astrocytes essentially activate the part of the brain where they are located. For example, if switched on in the part of the brain that regulates blood pressure (called the brainstem), the result is an increase in blood pressure, which is exactly what [the research] team observed. . . . this is a completely non-invasive way to modify brain function.” If the researchers can find a way to insert the tiny magnets with higher precision and find materials to allow the magnets to melt away into the body after use, then they may have found a new method to control brain activity from outside the body. Dissolvable brain sensors have already been developed at the University of Illinois. The developers use a watertight polymer that gradually erodes over a few days.
Cutting-edge research shows us the depth of brain-reading technology, while consumer products demonstrate its breadth. Non-invasive neural readers are available on the market for all kinds of applications. I have previously explored brain interfaces explored by Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk and others, but today’s market is filled with BCIs from smaller companies.
For example, the Mundra Band enables control of your smartwatch by measuring muscle twitches in your wrist or even thoughts about what you want to do. Advocates claim that the band is sensitive enough to read subtle finger movements and “When you intend to move a finger, electrodes in the Mudra Band capture the neural signals sent from your brain, through the wrist, to your fingers.” Claiming to capture “biopotentials” emanating from your wrist and converting the skin’s ionic electrical activity to working signals, the band taps AI algorithms to decipher the patterns.
French start-up Nextmind is manufacturing and selling a device-control system that includes electroencephalogram (EEG) sensing headwear, including a modified baseball cap, that connects to a computer and “translates brain signals instantly from the user’s visual cortex into digital commands for any device in real-time.” No more searching for the television remote. You can change the channels with your thoughts using the Nextmind system, for the cost of a smartphone. Nextmind also has a virtual reality helmet with view visors that allow the player to control game action with only EEG signals, and is developing games to accompany the input devices.
IMediSync offers an EEG-reading helmet for assessing neurological and mental health conditions, earing FCC approval as an electronic device, but does not yet seem to have FDA approval as a medical device. The manufacturer claims its helmet provides clinical assessments of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease as well as mood disorders. Some of the consumer brain-wave readers target better sleep. The Apollo device uses wrist or ankle vibrations to send stimulation of the brain through the vagus nerve. The UrgoNight headband claims to train your brain during daytime wearings (20 minutes a day, 3 times a week), to improve sleep at night. The Hapbee band can be worn on your head or around your neck and uses magnetic field technology called uIRFE to send signals into your brain. According to Hapbee, “The Bedtime signal is a sleep trigger meant to help you fall asleep quickly. The Deep Sleep signal is a sleep regulator that is a game-changer for people who wake up often during the night.”
Some companies (including Hapbee) offer their products to improve meditation. The Muse 2 headset guides you into a meditative state playing weather sounds to indicate whether your mind is too busy (stormy) or whether your mind is calm (quiet breeze). BrainTap offers a headset that uses binaural beats, light therapy and sound therapy to deepen mindfulness. The product comes with six meditation programs to help your knowledge of body and mind. While Versus neurofeedback headset provides EEG games intended to assist focus and attention, Mightier uses heart rate biofeedback to help kids regulate tantrums and frustration.
Everyone from the U.S. military to the fitness industry is now testing and producing BCIs and neurofeedback devices. Thoughts are our most private domain, and as industry develops tools to harness directed thoughts, many people will benefit. But as with other technological advances, we must develop this industry with care and consideration of the ethics involved.