Brain-Computer Interfaces: An Overview
Picture this, it’s late at night and you have a big test tomorrow which you haven’t studied for. As you steadily move through the course material you wonder if there was a way by which you could just download information straight to your brain. That might be closer than you think.
Technology (like DARPA’s Neural Engineering System Design) now exists by which your brain can directly interact with a computer- this is called a Brain Computer Interface(BCIs). Even though this might seem magical there’s actually something very simple behind this. Our brains have millions of neurons connected by Axons and Dendrites. When we think, move, or memorize something, our neurons work to transfer data through small electrical signals. These electrical signals move around our brain at speeds more than 250 mph! Although, the paths these signals take are insulated by a fatty white substance called myelin, some of them escape. These electrical signals are what allow us to interpret our thoughts and translate them into mouse-clicks and keypresses. Following animal-testing, the first prosthetics that could be directly controlled by their users’ brains came up in the 1990s.
A Brief History
Hans Berger discovered the electrical activity of the brain in 1924 and recorded it by the means of EEG or electroencephalogy.
In order to record these electrical signals, he inserted silver wires into the scalps of his patients, which were later replaced by silver foils attached to the patient’s head by rubber bandages.
Jacques Vidal, a UCLA professor, is widely recognized as the creator of BCIs. He coined the term and produced the first peer-reviewed publication on this topic.
Now, BCIs are most often used for researching, mapping, assisting, augmenting or repairing human cognitive or sensory-motor functions.
Devices like these can be very helpful for disabled people. DARPA is funding the research and development of BCIs, which allow blind people to see . This might sound complicated, but the concept behind this is fairly simple: researchers can figure out what electrical signals are sent to the brain when our eyes see the color red and then rig up a camera to do the same.
BCIs can also allow people to control prosthetic limbs with their brains. Due to the incredible cortical plasticity of the brain, signals from prosthetics can after some alteration, be interpreted by the brain in the same way as it would interpret signals sent by natural limbs.
There’s options for people who’d like to experiment with BCIs outside the lab. wyrm, a Python library, allows you to play around with EEGs and make your own brain-computer interfaces.