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The Future of Brain-Computer Interfaces: Overcoming Challenges and Pioneering Technologies

  1. Brain-Computer Interfaces (BCIs) have emerged as a fascinating field with immense potential to revolutionize human-machine interaction. By directly linking the human brain to external devices, BCIs hold promise for a wide range of applications, from assisting individuals with disabilities to enhancing virtual reality experiences. However, realizing the full potential of BCIs requires addressing significant challenges and harnessing cutting-edge technologies. In this article, we explore the future of BCIs, highlighting the key challenges faced and the exciting technologies paving the way for groundbreaking advancements.

 

Understanding Brain-Computer Interfaces (BCIs)

Every action our body performs begins with a thought, and with every thought comes an electrical signal. The electrical signals can be received by the brain-computer interface, consisting of an electroencephalograph (EEG) or an implanted electrode, which can then be translated, and then sent to the performing hardware to produce the desired action. BCI is an alternative system built on artificial mechanisms and acts as a bridge between the brain and external devices. The aim of BCI is to convey human intentions to external devices by directly extracting brain signals. Eventually, the brain and computers would be highly integrated.

 

The brain-computer interface (BCI) allows people to use their thoughts to control not only themselves, but the world around them. BCI enables a bidirectional communication between a brain and an external device, bidirectional generally includes direct neural readout and feedback and direct neural write-in.

 

Over the last few decades, several neuroengineering and neuroscience studies have demonstrated how Brain Computer Interface (BCI) technology can uncover the neural mechanisms underlying various tasks and translate them into commands that control an application or device

 

Brain-computer interfaces are being applied in neuroprosthetics, through which paralyzed persons are able to control robotic arms, neurogaming where one can control keyboard, mouse etc using their thoughts and play games, neuroanalysis (psychology), and in defense to control robotic soldiers or fly planes with thoughts.

 

BCIs may replace lost functions, such as speaking or moving. They may restore the ability to control the body, such as by stimulating nerves or muscles that move the hand. BCIs have also been used to improve functions, such as training users to improve the remaining function of damaged pathways required to grasp. BCIs can also enhance function, like warning a sleepy driver to wake up. Finally, a BCI might supplement the body’s natural outputs, such as through a third hand.

 

While many studies have demonstrated the theoretic potential of BCI, especially by deploying novel machine learning methods for detecting distinct task-specific attributes of the brain, a point of concern that remains is that the studies are still confined to lab settings and mostly limited to healthy able-bodied subjects. A few case-studies using invasive and non-invasive BCIs have demonstrated the application of BCI as a motor assistive technology for survivors of spinal cord injury (SCI).

For deeper understanding of BCI technology please visit: Mind Beyond Limits: The Exciting Future of Brain-Computer Interface Technology

Brain-Computer Interface technology

BCIs aim to establish a direct communication pathway between the brain and external devices, allowing individuals to control devices or communicate solely through their thoughts. To measure brain activity, different tools and technologies are utilized, each with varying levels of accuracy and invasiveness.

Neuroimaging-based approaches in the brain–computer interface - ScienceDirect

There are three fundamental techniques to interface with the brain; non-inasive such as electro-encephalography (EEG), invasive through direct connections and electro-corticography (ECoG), also known as intracranial EEG – a sort of half-way house involving electrodes placed on the brain’s exposed surface, rather than hardwired into the brain itself.

Invasive BCIs involve the use of electrodes placed directly within or on the surface of the brain. This technique provides high resolution and precise neural recordings. However, it requires neurosurgery, making it more invasive and necessitating regulatory approvals, which can pose challenges in funding and conducting clinical trials.

Non-invasive BCIs, on the other hand, measure brain activity through external means, typically by placing electrodes on the scalp using electroencephalography (EEG). Some BCIs have been based on metabolic activity that is measured noninvasively, such as through functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Non-invasive techniques offer convenience and reduced risk of infection compared to invasive methods. They have gained popularity in recent years due to their ease of use and wider accessibility.

In terms of implantable devices used in invasive BCIs, there are limitations to their performance. The mechanical, chemical, and physical properties of these devices often do not match well with the surrounding tissues. This mismatch can lead to tissue damage, decreased information density, and local inflammation and scarring due to the body’s response to foreign materials.

Non-invasive BCIs, particularly EEG-based systems, have seen significant progress in recent years. Advances in recording technology and signal processing techniques have allowed for the identification of new brain signal patterns and more complex control strategies. These developments have been tested in clinical and non-clinical settings, showcasing the potential of non-invasive BCIs in various applications.

 

Intro to Brain Computer Interface

Non-invasive BCI has found multiple uses in the areas of medicine such as motor restoration, wheelchair assistance, and treatment of neurological disorders. However noninvasive BCIs suffer from poor efficiency and accuracy, are slow and somewhat uncertain at present, they also tend to make high cognitive demands on the user.

 

In summary, BCIs utilize different techniques to measure brain activity, ranging from invasive approaches that provide high resolution but require surgery and regulatory approvals, to non-invasive methods that offer convenience and accessibility. Advances in both invasive and non-invasive BCIs continue to push the boundaries of this technology, opening up new possibilities for human-machine interaction and assisting individuals with disabilities.

 

Advances in BCI technology

In recent years, there has been significant progress in non-invasive BCI research and development, particularly in the field of electroencephalography (EEG)-based BCIs. Researchers and innovators have focused on identifying new brain signal patterns that can be used to infer user intent and enable more complex control strategies.

One of the most promising new BCI technologies is the use of optogenetics. Optogenetics is a technique that uses light to control the activity of neurons. This technique has the potential to greatly improve the accuracy and reliability of BCIs.

Another promising new BCI technology is the use of neural dust. Neural dust is a tiny, implantable device that can record brain activity. Neural dust is much smaller and less invasive than traditional BCI implants, which makes it a more attractive option for many people.

Advancements in recording technology and signal processing techniques have played a pivotal role in driving the progress of non-invasive BCIs. These developments have allowed for more accurate and reliable extraction of meaningful information from brain signals, facilitating improved control of external devices.

Advancements in Neural Signal Acquisition:

To enhance the usability and accuracy of BCIs, significant progress is being made in the field of neural signal acquisition. New electrode technologies, such as flexible and implantable electrodes, offer improved signal quality and longevity, enabling long-term, reliable brain signal recordings. Additionally, wireless and non-invasive techniques, such as electroencephalography (EEG) and functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS), are being developed, allowing for more comfortable and portable BCI systems.

Invasive BCI

Invasive BCI have greater application in neuroprosthetics compared to non-invasive BCI since in order to understand/regulate the neural connectivity of specific brain areas, it becomes necessary to introduce neural implants (electrodes). One of the critical technologies is material used to make electrodes used to make Brain Computer Interfaces.

Neural Implants and Brain-Machine Interfaces:

Implantable neural devices are on the forefront of BCI research. These devices, placed directly in the brain, offer high-resolution neural recordings and precise control of external devices. Advancements in neural implants include the development of biocompatible materials, miniaturized electronics, and wireless communication, all contributing to long-term functionality and reduced invasiveness. Neural implants hold great promise for restoring sensory perception, treating neurological disorders, and enabling novel cognitive enhancements.

 

DARPA Brain Modem

Instead of invasive brain surgery, DARPA has developed small brain modem  that enters the bloodstream via a catheter and then transmits data. The US military recently successfully implanted and tested its first ‘brain modem’ on an animal subject. Neurologists injected tiny sensors into livestocks’ veins and then recorded the electrical impulses that control the animals’ movements for six months.

 

The tiny, implanted chip, developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa), uses a tiny sensor that travels through blood vessels, lodges in the brain and records neural activity. The sensor, called a ‘stentrode’, a combination of the words ‘stent’ and ‘electrode’, is the first step in the military’s desire to allow soldiers to control machinery with their minds. The stentrode is the size of a paperclip, flexible and injectable.

“The original goal of the neural dust project was to imagine the next generation of brain-machine interfaces, and to make it a viable clinical technology,” said neuroscience graduate student Ryan Neely. “If a paraplegic wants to control a computer or a robotic arm, you would just implant this electrode in the brain and it would last essentially a lifetime.”

BCI in form of Artificial Skin

John Rogers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and his team have built a Brain Computer Interface, in the form of flexible electronic skin that conforms to the body. The interface comprising just of small patch of gold electrodes sticks to the skin through van der Waals forces like a digital tattoo. The patch applied behind the ear, falls off when the build-up of dead skin beneath it loosens its grip.

Their solution does away with the cumbersome electrodes, annoying gels and wires of conventional EEGs described by Rogers as a “rat’s nest of wires attached to devices that interface to the skin with tape and gels and bulky metallic objects”. The team is now working on wireless transmission of data and power, allowing it to work even if the wearer is moving.

 

Lund University’s Breakthrough for electrode implants

Lund University researchers have achieved a significant breakthrough in the development of electrode implants designed to record neuronal signals from the brain, addressing the critical factors of bio-friendliness and flexibility.

The brain is surrounded by cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) and housed within the skull. The CSF acts as a protective cushion, allowing the brain to float and move slightly within the skull. This movement occurs during various activities, including breathing, head movements, and even normal physiological processes.

The fact that the brain moves within the skull poses a challenge when designing electrode implants for recording neuronal signals. The electrodes need to be flexible and able to adapt to the brain’s movements without causing damage or disrupting the surrounding tissue. This flexibility is crucial to ensure stable and accurate recordings over an extended period.

Overcoming the challenge posed by the brain’s movement within the skull during various activities, the researchers, led by Professor Jens Schouenborg and Dr Lina Pettersson, created 3-D electrodes that are exceptionally soft and flexible in all dimensions.

Their implantation technique involves encapsulating the electrodes in a dissolvable gelatin material, ensuring gentle interaction with the brain while maintaining their shape within it. This innovative technology, developed by Lund University, is patented in Europe and the US, holding promise for enhanced brain activity understanding and the development of more effective treatments for neurological disorders like Parkinson’s disease and chronic pain.

Electronic dura mater for long-term multimodal neural interfaces

Swiss researchers have introduced a groundbreaking technology known as the electronic dura mater (e-dura), an ultra-flexible electrode implant designed to emulate the properties of the dura mater, the protective membrane surrounding the brain and spinal cord.

Unlike conventional rigid electrode implants, the e-dura is made of a transparent silicone substrate, stretchable gold interconnects, soft electrodes coated with a platinum-silicone composite, and a compliant fluidic microchannel, offering superior biocompatibility with neural tissues. In a study with rats, the e-dura implants demonstrated improved long-term biointegration, accurate recording, and stimulation capabilities in both the brain and spinal cord, showcasing its potential for advanced neuroprosthetic devices and neurological treatments with reduced adverse effects.

 

University of Melbourne scientists develop BCI which gets implanted in the brain without surgery

Scientists at the University of Melbourne, in collaboration with the Royal Melbourne Hospital and the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health, have introduced a groundbreaking Brain-Computer Interface (BCI) called a stentrode. This matchstick-sized device offers a minimally invasive approach, as it can be implanted into the brain’s motor cortex through blood vessels, eliminating the need for invasive brain surgery. The stentrode captures and decodes brain signals, allowing users to control an exoskeleton with their thoughts, potentially aiding individuals with paralysis and other neurological conditions. It has the potential to benefit people with conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, motor neurone disease, obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, and even help predict and manage seizures in epilepsy patients.

This wireless transmission of commands through the skin opens up possibilities for individuals with paralysis to regain mobility and independence. The upcoming trial involving paralyzed patients aims to assess the device’s effectiveness, with the potential for commercial availability within six years. This development signifies a significant leap forward in BCI technology, promising improved neuroprosthetics and enhanced quality of life for those with mobility challenges and various neurological disorders.

 

Researchers demonstrate first human use of high-bandwidth wireless brain-computer interface in March 2021

In March 2021, researchers achieved a significant milestone in brain-computer interface (BCI) technology by demonstrating the first human use of a high-bandwidth wireless BCI system. This breakthrough, part of the BrainGate clinical trial, enables individuals with tetraplegia to use an intracortical wireless BCI with an external wireless transmitter, eliminating the need for physical cables that connect the brain sensors to decoding systems.

The wireless system utilizes a small transmitter placed on top of the user’s head, connecting to an electrode array within the brain’s motor cortex through the same port used by wired systems. In a study published in IEEE Transactions on Biomedical Engineering, two participants with paralysis successfully used the BrainGate system with the wireless transmitter to control a standard tablet computer. The study revealed that the wireless system transmitted brain signals with comparable fidelity to wired systems, resulting in similar accuracy for pointing, clicking, and typing tasks.

The researchers emphasize that the wireless BCI system achieves functionality equivalent to wired systems, enabling the use of existing decoding algorithms. The elimination of physical tethers opens up new possibilities for BCI applications. This development represents an early but crucial step toward the ultimate goal of a fully implantable intracortical BCI system that restores independence for individuals who have lost motor function.

Previously, wireless BCI devices with lower bandwidth had been reported, but this is the first system capable of transmitting the full spectrum of signals recorded by an intracortical sensor at high broadband fidelity. The high-broadband wireless signal opens doors for advanced clinical research and human neuroscience studies that are challenging to conduct with wired BCIs.

Overall, this achievement paves the way for further advancements in wireless BCI technology and brings us closer to developing fully implantable systems that can significantly improve the quality of life for individuals with motor impairments.

 

Enhancing Communication and Restoration of Function:

BCIs have the potential to restore communication and motor function for individuals with disabilities. Future developments aim to expand the capabilities of BCIs, enabling more natural and expressive communication, as well as finer control of prosthetic limbs. Researchers are exploring ways to decode complex movements and intentions from brain signals, allowing for more intuitive and seamless interactions between the brain and external devices.

In recent years, advances in machine learning (ML) have enabled the development of more advanced BCI spellers, devices that allow people to communicate with computers using their thoughts. In the next few years, we might be able to control our PowerPoint presentation or Excel files using only our brains. Some prototypes can translate brain activity into text or instructions for a computer, and in theory, as the technology improves, we’ll see people using BCIs to write memos or reports at work.

 

Signal Processing and Machine Learning:

Effectively processing and interpreting neural signals is a critical challenge in BCI technology. Machine learning algorithms are playing a crucial role in decoding brain activity patterns and translating them into meaningful commands. Advances in deep learning and artificial intelligence have shown promising results in improving the accuracy and speed of signal processing, enabling more efficient and precise control of external devices through BCIs.

A major proportion of BCI literature has focused on improving performance of BCI applications by enhancing the decoding performance of signal processing and machine learning algorithms. While this is an important contributing factor, research has also demonstrated that mutual learning of the machine and the user is critical for a successful closed-loop implementation of BCI.

In any case, the fundamental deciding factor for the efficiency of a BCI system is how well the end-user can generate distinct and consistent brain activity corresponding to each mental task. This in turn results in well-calibrated BCI decoders that can offer better real-time performance. However, the calibration paradigms for data collection, often involve time-consuming, monotonous and non-engaging visual interfaces.

 

Semantic decoder brain-computer interface (BCI) system developed by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin.

Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin have developed a semantic decoder brain-computer interface (BCI) system with the potential to revolutionize communication for individuals unable to speak due to conditions like amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Published in Nature Neuroscience, the study involved training 10 participants with ALS to imagine reading a story while recording their brain activity with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). The recorded fMRI data was then used to train a semantic decoder AI model, achieving an impressive accuracy of 94%. The semantic decoder has the potential to assist individuals with ALS, stroke, or other speech-affecting conditions in communicating, expressing thoughts, and regaining independence. While still in early development, the system offers promising prospects for those unable to speak.

The semantic decoder system is built on a transformer model, similar to those used by OpenAI’s ChatGPT and Google’s Bard, known for processing long sequences of data. The model, composed of self-attention layers, allows for learning long-range dependencies in the data. Trained on fMRI data from participants imagining reading stories, the system associates different brain activity patterns with words and phrases. Although currently impractical for use outside a laboratory due to reliance on time-consuming fMRI machines, the researchers aim to adapt their work to more portable brain-imaging systems like functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS). The technology, still in its early stages, holds significant potential for enhancing the lives of those unable to speak, facilitating communication, and providing a means of expression for individuals with speech-affecting conditions.

 

Breakthrough AI Tech Enables Brain Stroke Survivor To Communicate Through Avatar

Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) and the University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley) have developed a new technology that allows people who have suffered a stroke to communicate through an avatar. The technology uses a combination of brain-computer interface (BCI) and artificial intelligence (AI) to translate brain signals into speech.

The technology has been tested on a woman named Ann, who suffered a stroke at the age of 30 that left her paralyzed and unable to speak. Ann was implanted with a BCI device that consists of a thin array of electrodes placed on the surface of her speech cortical regions of her brain. The BCI device records Ann’s brain signals as she attempts to speak.

The researchers then used AI to train a computer model to translate Ann’s brain signals into speech. The computer model was trained on a large dataset of speech and brain signals from healthy individuals.

Once the computer model was trained, the researchers developed a digital avatar that could be controlled by Ann’s brain signals. When Ann thinks about speaking a word, the computer model translates her brain signals into speech and the avatar speaks the word.

The technology is still under development, but it has the potential to revolutionize the way that people who have suffered a stroke communicate. It could also be used to help people with other communication disorders, such as cerebral palsy and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). The researchers believe that the technology could be available for clinical use within the next five years.

Johns Hopkins study allows ALS patients to navigate home devices with their minds

Johns Hopkins researchers have achieved a breakthrough in brain-computer interface (BCI) technology, allowing ALS patients like 62-year-old Tim Evans to control home devices using their minds. In a study led by Dr. William Anderson and Dr. Chad Gordon, the team implanted a BCI in Evans’ brain, decoding signals from areas responsible for speech and upper limb function. Using a computer algorithm trained to translate these signals into commands, Evans can silently control smart devices like lights and streaming apps with six basic commands. The study’s success, published on October 2023, demonstrated the BCI’s ability to accurately translate commands over three months without retraining.

This innovative BCI technology holds promise for individuals like Evans, diagnosed with ALS, who face severe speech and swallowing difficulties. The BCI’s integration of AI advances over the past 10 to 20 years has made silent communication and device control possible. The researchers, led by Dr. Nathan Crone, a neurology professor, are now working on expanding the BCI’s vocabulary by translating more words from brain signals, aiming to eventually restore patients’ voices. Evans’ dedication to the research makes him a hero, contributing to advancements that could benefit patients facing similar challenges. The breakthrough offers hope for enhancing the quality of life for individuals with ALS and other speech-impairing conditions.

 

New use cases

As BCI technology continues to develop, we can expect to see a number of new and exciting applications for these devices. BCIs have the potential to help people with disabilities regain lost function, and they could also be used to improve our cognitive abilities.

But new use cases are being identified all the time. For example, BCIs can now be used as a neurofeedback training tool to improve cognitive performance. For example, your BCI could detect that your attention level is too low compared with the importance of a given meeting or task and trigger an alert. BCIs can detect the mental state of a worker and adjust nearby devices accordingly (smart home utilization). for example, It could  adapt the lighting of your office based on how stressed you are, or prevent you from using your company car if drowsiness is detected.

A Toronto-based startup called “Muse” has developed a sensing headband that gives real-time information about what’s going on in your brain. The startup already has a “Corporate Wellness Program” to “help your employees lower stress, increase resilience, and improve their engagement.” Other headbands on the market also use proprietary sensors to detect brain signals and leverage machine learning algorithms to provide insights into the engagement levels of users/workers. They can track whether someone is focused or distracted.

 

Researchers are also experimenting with “passthoughts” as an alternative to passwords. Soon, we might log into our various devices and platforms using our thoughts. As described in this IEEE Spectrum article, “When we perform mental tasks like picturing a shape or singing a song in our heads, our brains generate unique neuronal electrical signals. A billion people could mentally hum the same song and no two brain-wave patterns generated by that task would be alike. An electroencephalograph (EEG) would read those brain waves using noninvasive electrodes that record the signals. The unique patterns can be used like a password or biometric identification.”

 

U C Berkeley engineers have built the first dust-sized, wireless sensors that can be implanted in the body without surgery, bringing closer the day when a Fitbit-like device could monitor internal nerves, muscles or organs in real time.Because these batteryless sensors could also be used to stimulate nerves and muscles, the technology also opens the door to “electroceuticals” to treat disorders such as epilepsy or to stimulate the immune system or tamp down inflammation.

 

Here are some of the potential applications of BCIs:

  • Restoring lost function. BCIs could be used to help people with disabilities regain lost function. For example, BCIs could be used to help people who are paralyzed control prosthetic limbs.
  • Improving cognitive abilities. BCIs could be used to improve our cognitive abilities. For example, BCIs could be used to help us learn new things faster or to improve our memory.
  • Augmenting our senses. BCIs could be used to augment our senses. For example, BCIs could be used to give us night vision or to allow us to see in the infrared spectrum.
  • Creating new forms of communication. BCIs could be used to create new forms of communication. For example, BCIs could be used to allow people to communicate telepathically.

 

Ethical Considerations and User Acceptance:

As BCIs progress, ethical considerations surrounding privacy, data security, and informed consent become increasingly important. Balancing the potential benefits with concerns about personal autonomy and data ownership is crucial. Engaging users in the development process and ensuring transparency are essential for gaining public trust and widespread acceptance of BCIs.

 

Conclusion:

The future of Brain-Computer Interfaces is filled with exciting possibilities. Overcoming challenges in neural signal acquisition, signal processing, and user acceptance will unlock the full potential of BCIs. With advancements in neural implants, machine learning algorithms, and ethical considerations, BCIs have the potential to significantly improve the lives of individuals with disabilities and open up new avenues for human-machine interaction. The future holds great promise for BCIs, and as technology continues to advance, we can expect remarkable breakthroughs that will shape our understanding of the human brain and transform the way we interact with the world around us.

 

 

 

References and Resources also include:

https://hbr.org/2020/10/what-brain-computer-interfaces-could-mean-for-the-future-of-work

https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/research_reports/RR2900/RR2996/RAND_RR2996.pdf

https://www.brown.edu/news/2021-03-31/braingate-wireless

About Rajesh Uppal

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