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Shaped by Machines

Shaped by Machines

The future of brain-machine interfaces.

Gaming without consoles, but by interacting with your thoughts. Playing virtual instruments with your mind. Typing your articles without moving your arms. Moving a wheelchair without touching a joystick. Science fiction? Not at all! For 2014 I predict amazing developments in neuroscience. The line between humans and machines will get thinner and thinner. Welcome in the wonderful world of Brain-Machine Interfaces.

In the past decades many researchers have worked on the development of this technology. Brain-machine interfaces connect the human brain to an external device, such as a computer or a robotic arm. With this connection, people can direct actions of these devices with their thoughts. This can be done in multiple ways. Brain-machine interfaces can for instance be used therapeutically, to restore disabled functions, or non-therapeutically, by enhancing functions of healthy people. Furthermore, the technique can either be invasive, with surgical implantations in the grey matter of the brain, or partially invasive, by surgical skull implantations (not inside the brain) and even non-invasive, with neuroimaging techniques.

What are the possibilities with this technology? What can we expect for the future?

Replacing body parts

People that suffer loss of mobility, caused for instance by brain injury, limb loss or neurological diseases, can benefit greatly from brain-machine interfaces. In 2006, the first clinical results were published: a patient with paralysis in all limbs was able to use a robotic arm with a surgically implanted device. Other research showed that monkeys were able to feed themselves with a mechanical arm, via implanted silicon electrodes in the motor cortex. The last couple of years similar studies also demonstrated successes for restoring mobility in both upper and lower extremities, with motor tasks like arm reaching, grasping and balance. An experiment with monkeys with virtual avatar bodies even revealed possibilities in improving sensory functions. These progresses enable us to carefully think about options for whole-body prosthetics, directed by the brain. A robotic body controlled by the human brain: this technique might be closer than you think.

Communication

Research has identified brain signals that underlie spoken and imagined words, opening the door to brain-based communication. People with brain-machine interface implants could for instance imagine speech, resulting in words on a computer screen. This could be very helpful for people with speech impairments or for people suffering from the `locked-in` syndrome. In 2013, results were published of brain-to-brain interface in rats. Both rats had electrodes implanted in their motor cortex. These electrodes were connected via the internet, resulting in transmission of signals, leading to similar behaviour in both rats. New understandings of how thoughts are encoded in the brain and how they can be transmitted to other brains might lead to interesting studies the coming year!

These are just two of the many, many possibilities with these techniques. We can also use them for the development of new games, to develop brain training exercises, to control wheelchairs or other transportations, and so on.

As with all new technologies, there are some issues and concerns. Although there have been rapid developments during the last decades, techniques have only been applied in a clinical setting, so the risk and benefits analysis is yet unknown. Furthermore, many people fear that these methods will invade privacy. They think of mind-reading techniques and mind-control, or mad scientists creating strong robots that take over the world.

Nonetheless, I am sure that we will hear more and more about these fascinating techniques in 2014. Possibly, a few years from now, we will have strong mechanical bodies, controlled by our minds. We are able to communicate without even speaking. People with severe disabilities are able to communicate with their loved-ones and can have a rather independent life. Let’s see what 2014 brings us!

References:

  1. Lebedev, M. A., Tate, A. J., Hanson, T. L., Li, Z., O’Doherty, J. E., Winans, J. A., … & Nicolelis, M. A. (2011). Future developments in brain-machine interface research. Clinics (Sao Paulo), 66(Suppl 1), 25-32.
  2. Nair, P. (2013). Brain–machine interface. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110(46), 18343-18343.
  3. Pei, X., Barbour, D. L., Leuthardt, E. C., & Schalk, G. (2011). Decoding vowels and consonants in spoken and imagined words using electrocorticographic signals in humans. Journal of neural engineering, 8(4), 046028.

Photo Credit: Steve Grosbois

This article was originally published in the tablet issue Predicting Science

Koko Beers
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