Technology connects people’s thoughts to machines

(Republished with permission from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. This article originally ran in the Science & Medicine section on Monday, July 6, 2009)

Researchers at Washington University have developed ways of tying humans and computers together.
Researchers at Washington University have developed ways of tying humans and computers together.

By Liz Stoever St. Louis Post-Dispatch

It sounds like something from a science fiction movie: Sensors are surgically inserted in the brain to understand what you’re thinking. Machines that can speak, move or process information — based on the fleeting thoughts in a person’s imagination.

But it’s not completely fictional. The technology is out there. A researcher in Wisconsin recently announced the ability to “think” updates onto the Twitter website. Locally, researchers at Washington University have developed even deeper ways of tying humans and computers together.

For Eric Leuthardt, 36, a neurologist at Washington University Medical School, it’s about taking our relationship with computers to the next level.

“The idea is to basically connect people with devices and machines through their thoughts directly,” he said.

Leuthardt’s latest research involves giving computers the ability to understand speech imagined in the mind.

The research is a component of “Brain-Computer Interface Technology,” which decodes brainwaves in a certain part of the brain. Computers are then programmed to understand those signals and perform an action accordingly.

But so far, only signals for imagined actions have been decoded. Moving on to decoding speech will make communication to computers from the mind easier.

Ultimately, Leuthardt said, the technology will better connect humans and machines. For those with disabilities, it will connect them more closely to the world.

“They can have a cognitive version of a mouse click that they could not otherwise control with their arms or their hands,” he said.

Leuthardt began BCI technology related research in 2002. Just two years later, Leuthardt along with Daniel Moran, a biological engineer at Washington University, used the technology to develop video games that can be played with the mind.

Players control the game by imagining an action. For example, imagining the movement of the left hand may mean moving left, whereas imagining the movement of the tongue may mean to move up.

The Space Invaders video game has been tested on only 15-20 people so far because the sensors that read those brain signals go directly on or in the brain through surgery. Because patient testing would require surgery, children with epilepsy are given the chance to participate because they already have similar equipment placed in their brains that also locate electric signals in the brain.

Leuthardt is not alone. He is one of many researchers nationwide who are all collaborating to make this mind-reading technology available for home use in five to 10 years.

Since the introduction of BCI technology in the late 1980s, researchers have been thinking of practical applications for BCI technology though they are still in the process of making them available.

Research that will give people better control of prosthetic limbs is being conducted at Washington University’s Computer Engineering Department by professor Bill Smart, who is researching the brain signals that predict finger movement.

“We’re looking for electrical activity that predicts more relatively clean signals,” he said.

Smart said this application of BCI technology would be available in about 10 years and would allow people with prosthetic arms to better grasp items.

A biomedical engineering doctoral student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Adam Wilson, 28, has already adapted the existing BCI technology to allow people to use Twitter without their hands. Justin Williams, a UW-Madison assistant professor of biomedical engineering, was involved in the project and was Wilson’s adviser.

It took Wilson one day to combine the BCI technology with the simple interface for Twitter, a social networking website that features 140-character updates from users.

“I just brought two existing technologies together in an exciting way,” he said. Updates are online at Wilson said he decided to combine the two so people would know that the technology is out there.

The Twitter application, however, is less invasive than what Washington U. researchers are using. Unlike the implanted brain sensors, the ones Wilson used are less sensitive to brain signals, but can be placed atop the head like a swim cap. Those sensors are being tested by five to 10 people with disabilities at home, allowing them to tell their caretakers that the room is too hot, for example, Wilson said.

Researchers are still attacking some obstacles in their research. Leuthardt said they needed to make the implant in the brain much smaller. Researchers also have to figure out how to teach caretakers to use the system and get the cost down. The equipment used in labs currently costs tens of thousands of dollars, Wilson said.

“BCIs are very sophisticated systems,” Wilson said. “They still need to be simplified to work in a home setting.”

Copyright 2009 St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Inc.