The revolution is just around the corner

By Hazem Zohny

A bearded 25-year-old sits very still with a robotic hand placed next to him. This man, Mathew Nagle, is paralyzed from the neck down due to an accident that left him with a severed spine. Yet he seems to be trying to do the impossible. He is trying to make the robotic hand next to him form a fist, and he is trying to do that using his thoughts alone.

Casually, and without much effort, Nagle merely imagines making a fist with his own immobile hand, and presto, the robotic hand twitches and forms a fist of its own. He can even make it move around in any way he wishes simply by imagining it doing so. But Nagle is not demonstrating psychic power. Rather, he is part of an experiment based on the new technology known as brain-machine interface (also called braincomputer interface). He is one of the first to have his brain activity “read out”, and used to command a prosthetic limb. In fact, Nagle and many others have been able to do a lot more than command a prosthetic limb by their thoughts alone. They have been able to move cursors around a computer screen, control televisions, and even play simple computer games – all just by thinking it.

So what is really going on here? In cases such as Nagle’s, there is a small implant surgically placed within his motor cortex (the area of the brain that is associated with movement) that detects the neuronal activity around it. It then sends out the neural information it gathered to a computer, which interprets this activity as, in this example, the thought of making a fist. The computer in turn commands the robotic hand to move accordingly. Likewise, by imaging moving a cursor around a screen, or moving out of the way of an approaching object, brain-machine interfacing can allow you to play games or change channels without moving a muscle. In other words, this is telepathy of the mechanical kind – thoughts, which are detected in the form of their neural counterparts in the brain, are “read”, and sent to a computer which deciphers them as the thought to move in a certain way. For amputees and victims of paralysis, this is the beginning of their long-awaited miracle.

It began in the 1980s when algorithms were developed that reconstructed neural activity in the motor cortex. First tested on monkeys, it was later limited to humans in dire circumstances (for obvious ethical reasons). More recently, however, the advent of powerful brain activity sensors placed on the scalp have begun reducing the need for implants, making this technology potentially accessible to anyone.

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NEUROFEEDBACK

These non-invasive “scalp sensors” have been involved in other kinds of research which is partly related, but mostly fascinating in its own right. The ability to monitor brain activity using sensors placed on the scalp (what is called electroencephalography or EEG) has been around for some time now, but has recently been finding more and more use in a controversial therapy called neurofeedback. Neurofeedback is just that: it is real time feedback (or information) about your neural states. Like measuring heart rate and presenting it live on a monitor (called biofeedback in this case), neurofeedback attempts to allow the user to better control their mental states in virtue of being able to observe it.

It has had its uses in treating ailments such as depression and insomnia, though one illustrative example of its use is with children suffering from Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). Here, the program the sensors feed into is set to reinforce the user whenever the brain waves associated with focused, alert attention are detected. It does this by issuing a beep to signal to the user that they are on track (more sophisticated programs may present a biker on a screen who begins peddling faster and faster the more the aimed-at state is induced). The reinforcement is halted, however, the moment the user strays into distraction, notifying them to get back on track. The result, with practice, is the ability to recognize, induce, and maintain healthier states of minds – more specifically, the states of mind which their ailment prohibits easy access to.

THE FUTURE

The question many researches are now tackling is whether either of these technologies, neurofeedback or brain-machine interface, can be of use to the average, healthy individual. The answer seems to be, yes.

Early research suggests that neurofeedback can be useful for training individuals in a number of fields. Aside from more professional uses, such as training fighter pilots to remain highly alert after hours of flying, some studies suggest that neurofeedback can expedite the benefits of meditative practices, and more generally allow the individual to become more alert and centered in everyday activities.

Likewise, today’s more receptive sensors allow anyone to make use of brain-machine interface without the need for implants. Earlier this year researchers from the Fraunhofer Institute of Berlin demonstrated their “mental typewriter” – a veil-like cap with a multitude of sensors worn around the head. Its heightened sensitivity can allow users to operate artificial limbs, and is attracting the attention of the gaming industry. However, these devices will likely need to become wireless and less manifest before they have a more ubiquitous use.

Nevertheless, together, these two technologies spell out a future of what can be crudely called “brain power”; a future where individuals are more attuned to and commanding of their mental states, and where home appliances and everyday machinery are operated at the flick of a thought.

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