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.