The Future is Here: First Brain-to-Brain Interface!

https://i0.wp.com/www.extremetech.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/professor-x-x-men-telepathy-helmet-640x352.jpgIn a first amongst firsts, a team of international researchers have reported that they have built the first human-to-human brain-to-brain interface; allowing two humans — separated by the internet — to consciously communicate with each other. One researcher, attached to a brain-computer interface (BCI) in India, successfully sent words into the brain of another researcher in France, who was wearing a computer-to-brain interface (CBI).

In short, the researchers have created a device that allows people to communicate telepathically. And it’s no surprise, given the immense amount of progress being made in the field. Over the last few years, brain-computer interfaces that you can plug into your computer’s USB port have been commercially available. And in the last couple of years we’ve seen advanced BCIs that can be implanted directly into your brain.

BCICreating a brain-to-brain connection is a bit more difficult though, as it requires that brain activity not only be read, but inputted into someone else’s brain. Now, however, a team of international researchers have cracked it. On the BCI side of things, the researchers used a fairly standard EEG (electroencephalogram) from Neuroelectrics. For the CBI, which requires a more involved setup, a transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) rig was used.

To break the process down, the BCI reads the sender’s thoughts, like to move their hands or feet, which are then broken down into binary 1s and 0s. These encoded thoughts are then transmitted via the internet (or some other network) to the recipient, who is wearing a TMS. The TMS is focused on the recipient’s visual cortex, and it receives a “1″ from the sender, it stimulates a region in the visual cortex that produces a phosphene.

https://i2.wp.com/www.extremetech.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/brain-to-brain-bci-eeg-tms.jpgThis is a phenomenon whereby a person sees flashes of light, without light actually hitting the retina. The recipient “sees” these phosphenes at the bottom of their visual field, and by decoding the flashes — phosphene flash = 1, no phosphene = 0 — the recipient can “read” the word being sent. While this is certainly a rather complex way of sending messages from one brain to another, for now, it is truly state of the art.

TMS is somewhat similar to TDCS (transcranial direct-current stimulation), in that it can stimulate regions of neurons in your brain. But instead of electrical current, it uses magnetism, and is a completely non-invasive way of stimulating certain sections of the brain and allowing a person to think and feel a certain way. In short, there doesn’t need to be any surgery or electrodes implanted into the user’s brain to make it happen.

brain-to-brain-interfacingThis method also neatly sidestep the fact that we really don’t know how the human brain encodes information. And so, for now, instead of importing a “native” message, we have to use our own encoding scheme (binary) and a quirk of the visual cortex. And even if it does seem a little bit like hard work, there’s no denying that this is a conscious, non-invasive brain-to-brain connection.

With some refinement, it’s not hard to imagine a small, lightweight EEG that allows the sender to constantly stream thoughts back to the receiver. In the future, rather than vocalizing speech, or vainly attempting to vocalize one’s own emotions, people could very well communicate their thoughts and feelings via a neural link that is accommodated by simple headbands with embedded sensors.

Brain-ScanAnd imagine a world where instant messaging and video conferencing have the added feature of direct thought sharing. Or an The Internet of Thoughts, where people can transfer terabytes worth of brain activity the same way they share video, messages and documents. Remember, the internet began as a small-scale connection between a few universities, labs and research projects.

I can foresee a similar network being built between research institutions where professors and students could do the same thing. And this could easily be followed by a militarized version where thoughts are communicated instantly between command centers and bunkers to ensure maximum clarity and speed of communication. My how the world is shaping up to be a science fiction novel!

Sources: extremetech.com, neurogadget.com, dailymail.co.uk

The Future is Here: Memory Prosthetics

Restoring Active Memory (Shutterstock)Developing implants that can restore damaged neural tissue – either by restoring the connections between damaged memory synapses or restoring cognitive function – is seen as the next great leap in prosthetic medicine. In recent years, steps have been taken in both areas, offering patients and willing subjects the option of restoring or hacking their neurology.

For example, last year, researchers working at the University of California and the University of Pennsylvania successfully managed to design and implement a brain implant that acted as a bypass for damaged brain tissue. This neural prosthesis successfully restored brain function in rats, demonstrating that the closed-loop brain-machine-brain interface could one day perform the same function in brain-damaged humans.

brain-darpa-617x416And as with many such projects, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) soon became involved, taking up the reins to fund the research and development of the technology. As part of the DARPA Restoring Active Memory (RAM) program, the device is currently being developed with the hope of restoring memory function in veterans who have suffered a traumatic brain injury.

Currently, over 270,000 military service members since 2000 and an estimated 1.7 million civilians in the US are affected by TBI, which often manifests as an inability to retrieve memories formed before being injured and an impaired ability to form new memories. Currently, there are also no effective treatments available, and beyond veterans, there are countless people around the world who suffer from the same condition as a result of accidents.

brainscansThe teams will first develop computer models that describe how neurons code memories, as well as analyzing neural signals in order to understand how targeted stimulation might help restore the brain’s ability to form memories. The UCLA team will use data collected from epilepsy patients that already have electrodes implanted in their brains to develop a model of the hippocampal-entorhinal system – known to be involved in learning and memory.

Meanwhile, the University of Pennsylvania team will study neurosurgical patients with implanted brain electrodes, recording data as they play computer-based memory games in order to gain an understanding of how successful memory function works. All patients will be volunteers, and the teams then plan to integrate these models into implantable closed-loop systems.

brain_chip2Like the research on rats, the implant will pick up neural signals from an undamaged section of the brain and route it around the damaged portion, effectively forming a new neural link that functions as well as the undamaged brain. And this is not the only research that aims to help assist in memory function when it comes to veterans and those suffering from TBI.

At Lawrence Livermore National Labs (LLNL), for example, efforts are being made to create a new type of “memory bridge”. This research builds upon similar efforts from USC, where researcher Ted Berger developed the first implantable memory device (coincidentally, also as part of DARPA’s RAM program) where limited electrodes were applied to the hippocampal regions of the brain to assist in recall and memory formation.

brain-implant-hippocampus-usc-640x424However, until now, no research lab has had any real clue as to what kinds of “codes” are involved when applying electrical stimulus to the brain. The LLNL group, which previously contributed to the groundbreaking Argus II retinal prosthesis is now taking a more integrated approach. With the recent announcement of ample federal BRAIN Initiative funding, they aim to build multifunction electro-optical-chemical neural sensor-effectors.

On the electrical end, LLNL’s new wafer technology will use fairly high electrode counts (perhaps 500-1000 spots). Compared to the usual higher density 11,000-electrode chips that have been used in the past, these chips will have more sparsely distributed electrode locations. Integrated light guides will provide conduits for optogenetic manipulations, and as an added bonus bi-directional fluid channels for any number of chemical exchanges are also etched in. 

llnl-brain-implantAnd like their California/Penn colleagues, the LLNL has teamed up with DARPA to get the funding they need to make this project a reality. So far, DARPA funders have brought in the implant heavyweight Medtronic, which made news last year with the development of its own closed-loop stimulators, to lend its expertise. In their case, the stimulators merged Brain-Computer Interface (BCI) with Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) to treat Parkinson’s.

Unfortunately, while immense progress in being made at the hardware end of things, there is still the matter of cracking the brains code first. In other words, where the device needs to be placed and which neurons need to be precisely controlled remain a mystery. Not all neurons are the same, and control hierarchies and preferred activation paths will inevitably emerge.

DeepBrain-New1Ultimately, what is needed in order to make precisely-targeted deep brain stimulation (DBS) possible is a real 3D model of the regions of the brain involved. Multiple efforts are underway, not the least of which are the work of Michele Tagliati’s group from the Movement Disorders Program in the department of neurology at Cedars-Sinai, or the Human Brain Project in Luasanne, Switzerland.

In these and other cases, the use of MRIs and brain scans to create a working map of the human brain – so that attempts to create biomimetic prosthetics that can enhance or assist in it’s functions – is the ultimate goal. And once researchers have a better idea of what the brain’s layout is, and what kinds of control hierarchies and paths are involved, we can expect to see brain implants becoming a regular feature of medicine.

And as always, devices that can restore function also open the way for the possibility of enhancement. So we can also expect that bionics prosthetics that restore memory and cognitive function will give way to ones that boost these as well. The dream of Homo Superior, the post-human, or transhumanism – whatever you choose to call it – is looking to be increasingly within our grasp.

And be sure to check out this video from LLNL showcasing how their new neural implant works:


Sources:
 cnet.com, extremetech.com, darpa.mil

The Future is Here: Overcoming Paralysis

neurobridge_ianIan Burkhart, a 23-year-old quadriplegic from Dublin, Ohio, was injured in 2010 in a diving accident, breaking his neck on a sandbar and paralyzing his body from the neck down. He was left with some use of his arms, but lost the use of his legs, hands, and fingers. Thanks to a new device known as the Neurobridge though – a device that allows the brains signals to bypass the severed spinal cord – Burkhart has now moved his right hand and fingers for the first time since the accident.

This device, which was developed in concert by the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center and the non-profit company Battelle, consists of a pea-sized chip that contains an an array of 96 electrodes, allows researchers to look at detailed signals and neural activity emanating from the patient’s brain. This chip was implanted in Ian’s brain two months ago, when neurosurgeon Dr Ali Rezai of Ohio State University performed the surgery that would implant the sensor chip into the motor cortex of his brain.

neuromorphic_revolutionBattelle has been working on neurosensing technology for almost a decade. As Chad Bouton, the leader of the Neurobridge project at Battelle, explains:

We were having such success in decoding brain activity, we thought, ‘Let’s see if we could remap the signals, go around something like a spinal cord injury and then translate the signals into something that the muscles could understand and help someone paralyzed regain control of their limb’.

During the test, which occurred in June, the implanted chip read and interpreted the electrical activity in Burkhart’s brain and sent it to a computer. The computer then recoded the signal, and sent it to a high-definition electrode stimulation sleeve Burkhart wore on his right arm, a process that took less than a tenth of a second and allowed Burkhart to move his paralysed fingers. Basically, Burkhart is able to move his hand by simply thinking about moving his hand, and the machine does the rest.

neurobridge1A team led by Chad Bouton at Battelle spent nearly a decade developing the algorithms, software and sleeve. Then, just two years ago, Dr Ali Rezai and Dr Jerry Mysiw were brought on board to design the clinical trials. Burkhart became involved with the study after his doctor mentioned it to him and he learned he was an ideal candidate. He had the exact level of injury the researchers were looking for, is young and otherwise healthy, and lives close to the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, where the research is being conducted.

Even so, Burkhart had to think hard before agreeing to the surgery. He also knew that the surgery wouldn’t magically give him movement again. He would have to undergo rigorous training to regain even basic hand function. Mainly, his experience would help move along future technological advances. However, he was excited to be taking part in cutting-edge research which would ultimately help people like him who have suffered from spinal injuries and paralysis.

enhancementPost-surgery, Burkhart still had a lot of thinking to do, this time, in order to move his hand. As he explained:

It’s definitely great for me to be as young as I am when I was injured because the advancements in science and technology are growing rapidly and they’re only going to continue to increase… Mainly, it was just the fact that I would have to have brain surgery for something that wasn’t needed… Anyone able bodied doesn’t think about moving their hand, it just happens. I had to do lots of training and coaching.

The hand can make innumerable complex movements with the wrist, the fingers, and the fist. In order for Battelle’s software to read Ian’s mind, it has to look for subtle changes in the signals coming from Ian’s brain. As Bouton explains it, the process is like walking into a crowded room with hundreds of people trying to talk to each other, and you’re trying to isolate one particular conversation in a language that you don’t understand.

neurobridgeAt this point, Burkhart can perform a handful of movement patterns, including moving his hand up and down, opening and closing it, rotating it, and drumming on a table with his fingers. All of this can only be done while he’s in the hospital, hooked up to the researchers’ equipment. But the ultimate goal is to create a device and a software package that he can take with him, giving him the ability to bypass his injury and have full ambulatory ability during everyday activities.

This isn’t the only research looking into bringing movement back to the paralyzed. In the past, paralyzed patients have been given brain-computer interfaces, but they have only been able to control artificial limbs – i.e. Zak Water’s mind-controlled leg or the BrainGate’s device that allow stroke victims to eat and drink using a mind-controlled robotic arm. Participants in an epidural stimulator implant study have also been able to regain some movement in their limbs, but this technology works best on patients with incomplete spinal cord injuries.

braingate_drinkassistBurkhart is confident that he can regain even more movement back from his hand, and the researchers are approved to try the technology out on four more patients. Ultimately, the system will only be workable commercially with a wireless neural implant, or an EEG headset – like the Emotiv, Insight or Neurosky headsets. The technology is also being considered for stroke rehabilitation as well, another area where EEG and mind-control technology are being considered as a mean to recovery.

From restoring ambulatory ability through mind-controlled limbs and neurosensing devices to rehabilitating stroke victims with mind-reading software, the future is fast shaping up to be a place where no injuries are permanent and physical disabilities and neurological impairments are a thing of the past. I think I can safely speak for everyone when I say that watching these technologies emerge makes it an exciting time to be alive!

And be sure to check out this video from the OSUW Medical Center that shows Ian Burkhart and the Batelle team testing the Neurobridge:


Sources: cnet.com, fastcoexist.com

The Future is Here: 3-D Printed Brain Scanner

openbciWhen it comes to cutting-edge technology in recent years, two areas of development have been taking the world by storm. On the one hand, there’s 3-D printing (aka. Additive Manufacturing) that is revolutionizing the way we fabricate things. On the other, there’s brain-computer interfaces (BCI), which are giving people the power to control machines with their minds and even transfer their thoughts.

And now, two inventors – Conor Russomanno and Joel Murphy – are looking to marry the two worlds in order to create the first, open-source brain scanner that people can print off at home. Thanks to funding from DARPA, the two men printed off their first prototype headset this past week. It’s known as the OpenBCI, and it’s likely to make brain scanning a hell of a lot more affordable in the near future.

openbci1It includes a mini-computer that plugs into sensors on a black, skull-grabbing piece of plastic called the “Spider Claw 3000,” which can be created with a 3-D printer. Assembled, it operates as a low-cost electroencephalography (EEG) brainwave scanner that connects to a PC, compared to  high-grade EEG machines used by laboratories and researchers that cost thousands of dollars.

But over the past few years, cheaper models have been made by companies like Emotiv, which have in turn allowed a new era of DIY brain hackers to conduct brainwaves experiments. Since that time, everything from games, computer interfaces, personal tracking tools, and self-directed mind enhancement have been available to regular people.

openbci2But Russomanno and Murphy felt the community needed a completely open-source platform if it was truly going to take off – hence the OpenBCI. The hardware to build the headset can be ordered from the company, while the software to run it is available through GitHub, a popular code sharing site. Once procured, people will have the ability to print off, program, and adjust their own personal brain scanning device.

According to Russomanno, the greatest asset of the headset (aside from the price) is the freedom it gives to brain hackers to put their EEG probes anywhere they like:

You don’t want to limit yourself to looking to just a few places on the scalp. You can target up to 64 locations on the scalp with a maximum of 16 electrodes at a time.

As it stands, Russomanno and Murphy have built the prototype headset, but still need to raise money to build the mini-computer that it plugs into. To accomplish this, the two inventors launched a Kickstarter project to fund the development of the Arduino-compatible hardware. Last week, they reached their goal of $100,000, and expect to ship their first systems in March.

openbci3The current design of the hardware, which looks more like a hexagonly-shaped circuit board than a computer, is their third incarnation. In addition to being smaller and Adruino-compatible, the third version is also programmable via Bluetooth and has a port for an SD card. When the hardware starts shipping, Russomanno expects it to kick off a new round of experimentation:

We’ve got about 300 people that have already donated to receive the board. If you’re willing to spend $300 for a piece of technology, you’re definitely going to build something with it.

One of the hallmarks of technological revolutions is the ability to make the technology scalable and more affordable. In this way, its benefits (aka. returns) are able to multiply and expand. And with the help of open-source devices like these that people can create on 3-D printers (which are also dropping in prices) the returns on mind-controlled devices are likely to grow exponentially in the coming years.

In short, the age of mind-controlled machinery may be just around the corner. Good to know they will be obeying us and not the other way around!


Sources:
wired.com, kickstarter.com

The Future is Here: The Insight Neuroheadset

Emotiv_insightPortable EEG devices have come a long way in recent years. From their humble beginnings as large, wire-studded contraptions that cost upwards of $10,000, they have now reached the point where they are small, portable, and affordable. What’s more, they are capable of not only reading brainwaves and interpreting brain activity, but turning that activity into real-time commands and controls.

Once such device is the Emotiv Insight, a neuroheadset that is being created with the help of a Kickstarter campaign and is now available for preorder. Designed by the same company that produced the EPOC, an earlier brain-computer interface (BCI) that was released in 2010, the Insight offers many improvements. Unlike its bulky predecessor, the new model is sleeker, lighter, uses five sensors instead of the EPOC’s fourteen and can be linked to your smartphone.

Emotiv_insight_EPOCIn addition, the Insight uses a new type of hydrophilic polymer sensor that absorbs moisture from the environment. Whereas the EPOC’s sensors required that the user first apply saline solution to their scalp, no extra applied moisture is necessary with this latest model. This is a boon for people who plan on using it repeatedly and don’t want to moisten their head with goo every time to do it.

The purpose behind the Insight and EPOC headsets is quite simple. According to Tan Le, the founder of Emotiv, the company’s long term aim is to take a clinical system (the EEG) from the lab into the real world and to democratize brain research. As already noted, older EEG machines were prohibitively expensive for smaller labs and amateur scientists and made it difficult to conduct brain research. Le and his colleagues hope to change that.

emotiv_insight1And it seems that they are destined to get their way. Coupled with similar devices from companies like Neurosky, the stage seems set for an age when brain monitoring and brain-computer interface research is something that is truly affordable – costing just a few hundred dollars instead of $10,000 – and allowing independent labs and skunkworks to contribute their own ideas and research to the fore.

As of September 16th, when the Kickstarter campaign officially closed, Emotiv surpassed its $1 million goal and raised a total of $1,643,117 for their device. Because of this, the company plans to upgrade the headset with a six-axis intertial sensor – to keep track of the user’s head movements, gait, tremor, gestures, etc. – a microSD card reader for added security, and a 3-axis magnetometer (i.e. a compass).

woman-robotic-arm_650x366In some cases, these new brain-to computer interfaces are making it possible for people with disabilities or debilitating illnesses to control robots and prosthetics that assist them with their activities, rehab therapy, or restore mobility. On a larger front, they are also being adapted for commercial use – gaming and interfacing with personal computers and devices – as well as potential medical science applications such as neurotherapy, neuromonitoring, and neurofeedback.

Much like a fitness tracker, these devices could let us know how we are sleeping, monitor our emotional state over time, and make recommendations based on comparative analyses. So in addition to their being a viable growth market in aiding people with disabilities, there is also the very real possibility that neuroheadsets will give people a new and exciting way to interface with their machinery and keep “mental records”.

Passwords are likely to replace passthoughts, people will be able to identify themselves with brain-activity records, and remote control will take on a whole new meaning! In addition, mental records could become part of our regular medical records and could even be called upon to be used as evidence when trying to demonstrate mental fitness or insanity at trials. Dick Wolf, call me already! I’m practically giving these ideas away!

And be sure to enjoy this video from Emotiv’s Kickstarter site:


Sources: fastcoexist.com, kickstarter.com

The Future of Medicine: “Hacking” Neurological Disorders

brain-scan_530Officially, it’s known as “neurohacking” – a method of biohacking that seeks to manipulate or interfere with the structure and/or function of neurons and the central nervous system to improve or repair the human brain. In recent years, scientists and researchers have been looking at how Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) could be used for just such a purpose. And the results are encouraging, indicating that the technology could be used to correct for neurological disorders.

The key in this research has to do with the subthalamic nucleus (STN) – a component of the basal ganglia control system that is interconnected to the motor areas of the brain. Researchers initially hit upon the STN as a site for stimulation when studying monkeys with artificially induced movement disorders. When adding electrical stimulation to this center, the result was a complete elimination of debilitating tremors and involuntary movements.

DIY biohacker Anthony Johnson – aka. “Cyber AJ” – also recently released a dramatic video where he showed the effects of DBS on himself. As a Parkison’s sufferer, Johnson was able to demonstrate how the applications of a mild electrical stimulus from his Medtronic DBS to the STN region of his brain completely eliminated the tremors he has had to deal with ever since he was diagnosed.


But in spite of these positive returns, tests on humans have been slow-going and somewhat inconclusive. Basically, scientists have been unable to conclude why stimulating the STN would eliminate tremors, as the function of this region of the brain is still somewhat of a mystery. What’s more, they also determined that putting electrodes in any number of surrounding brain nuclei, or passing fiber tracts, seems to have similar beneficial effects.

In truth, when dealing with people who suffer from neurological disorders, any form of stimulation is likely to have a positive effect. Whether it is Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, Tourettes, Autism, Aspergers, or neurological damage, electrical stimulation is likely to produce moments of lucidity, greater recall, and more focused attention. Good news for some, but until such time as we know how and in what ways the treatment needs to happen, lasting treatment will be difficult.

brain-activityLuckily, research conducted by the Movement Disorders Group at Oxford University, led by Peter Brown, has provided some degree of progress in this field. Since DBS was first discovered, they have been busily recording activity through what is essentially a brain-computer interface (BCI) in the hopes of amassing meaningful data from the brain as it undergoes stimulation moment-by-moment.

For starters, it is known that the symptoms of Parkinson’s and other such disorders fluctuate continuously and any form of smart control needs to be fast to be effective. Hence, DBS modules need to be responsive, and not simply left on all the time. Hence, in addition to their being electrodes that can provide helpful stimulus, there also need to be sensors that can detect when the brain is behaving erratically.

neuronsHere too, it was the Oxford group that came up with a solution. Rather than simply implanting more junk into the brain – expensive and potentially dangerous – Brown and his colleagues realized that the stimulation electrodes themselves can be used to take readings from the local areas of the brain and send signals to the DBS device to respond.

By combining BCI with DBS – lot of acronyms, I know! – the Oxford group and those like them have come away with many ideas for improvements, and are working towards an age where a one-size-fits-all DBS system will be replaced with a new series of personalized implants.

tcdsIn the meantime, a number of recreational possibilities also exist that do not involve electrodes in the brain. The tDCS headband is one example, a headset that provides transcranial direct current stimulation to the brain without the need for neurosurgery or any kind of brain implant. In addition to restoring neuroplasticity – the ability of the brain to be flexible and enable learning and growth – it has also been demonstrated to promote deeper sleep and greater awareness in users.

But it is in the field of personalized medical implants, the kinds that can correct for neurological disorders, that the real potential really exists. In the long-run, such neurological prosthesis could not only going to lead to the elimination of everything from mental illness to learning disabilities, they would also be the first step towards true and lasting brain enhancement.

transhuman3It is a staple of both science fiction and futurism that merging the human brain with artificial components and processors is central to the dream of transhumanism. By making our brains smarter, faster, and correcting for any troubling hiccups that might otherwise slow us down, we would effectively be playing with an entirely new deck. And what we would be capable of inventing and producing would be beyond anything we currently have at our disposal.

Sources: Extremetech.com, (2)