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If you thought ‘ Google Glasses’ were cut­ting edge, you’ve not seen any­thing yet. Join Si­mon Makin as he delves into new tech­nol­ogy that lets you move ob­jects with your mind and ex­plains a po­ten­tial cure for tin­ni­tus that will leave you feel­ing sorry for ‘par­tied-out’ lab mice.

In a true dis­play of mind over mat­ter, a team of bio­med­i­cal engi­neers from the Univer­sity of Min­nesota trained five vol­un­teers to pilot a re­mote con­trolled he­li­copter

through an ob­sta­cle course us­ing only the power of thought. (Their re­sults were pub­lished in June.) The elec­tri­cal ac­tiv­ity of the trainee ‘ telepath’s’ brains was de­tected by a cap fit­ted with 64 sen­sors, and used to wire­lessly con­trol a four-ro­tor ‘quad­copter’. By imag­in­ing the use of their hands, the pi­lots could con­trol the quad­copter in the left/ right and up/down di­rec­tions while it flew for­ward at a steady speed. It may sound like science fic­tion, but brain­com­puter in­ter­faces (BCI) are noth­ing new. A num­ber of groups around the world are work­ing on sim­i­lar projects, and we have al­ready seen elec­tric

wheel­chairs and ro­bot arms con­trolled via BCI sys­tems. Moves to com­mer­cialise the tech­nol­ogy are un­der­way with head­sets from com­pa­nies like

Neu­roSky hav­ing al­ready been re­leased, and Samsung re­port­edly work­ing on a BCI tablet

con­troller. Among the com­mer­cial of­fer­ings are mind con­trolled games (such as ‘Jur­ra­sic Golf’) and cat ear head­sets! This kind of tech­nol­ogy isn’t just a gim­mick – it could be put to valu­able use in help­ing peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties whose move­ment is im­paired. Teach­ing some­one to move some­thing with their minds may not be all that straight-for­ward ( as any young

Jedi knows – Ed). Imag­ine learn­ing to ride a bi­cy­cle with­out be­ing able to sense the wob­ble or feel the ped­als un­der your feet: ex­pe­ri­enc­ing this kind of sen­sory feed­back is cru­cial for learn­ing such

mo­tor skills. Look­ing in­side the mind of a ‘telepath’ Be­cause con­trol­ling a BCI de­vice does not nec­es­sar­ily in­volve mov­ing, learn­ing to use such de­vices might be quite dif­fer­ent to learn­ing other skills. But a study pub­lished less than a week af­ter the quad­copter re­port re­veals some im­por­tant sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween learn­ing to use a BCI de­vice

and learn­ing or­di­nary ‘mo­tor ‘skills, such as rid­ing a bike: Jeremiah Wan­der and col­leagues re­cruited seven epilepsy pa­tients who had elec­trode sen­sors im­planted in their brains to try to lo­cate where their seizures orig­i­nated. The Univer­sity of Wash­ing­ton re­searchers mon­i­tored pat­terns of brain ac­tiv­ity as the pa­tients learned to con­trol the po­si­tion of a cur­sor on a screen with their mind. They re­alised that many brain re­gions were ac­tive, even though the task should only re­quire a small group of brain cells; this net­work of re­gions was re­mark­ably sim­i­lar to those used when learn­ing or­di­nary phys­i­cal skills. Peo­ple learn­ing to use a BCI de­vice com­monly re­port mov­ing from a phase of de­lib­er­ate con­trol, dur­ing which they need to con­cen­trate on the thoughts re­quired (such as imag­in­ing mak­ing a fist to move the quad­copter), to a more au­to­matic mode, where they just think about what they want to hap­pen (such as turn­ing left or right). We also see this tran­si­tion dur­ing or­di­nary learn­ing, re­flect­ing a shift from con­scious to au­to­matic con­trol as we mas­ter a par­tic­u­lar skill. For the next ex­per­i­ments, the re­searchers think that be­ing able to see brain ac­tiv­ity in real-time could help peo­ple to per­form more com­plex tasks us­ing BCI de­vices – in­clud­ing be­ing able to con­trol mul­ti­ple di­men­sions of move­ment, as would be needed for a truly use­ful pros­thetic limb.

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