A BCI without a tail

A dry-electrode, portable 64-channel wearable EEG headset, transmitting data via Bluetooth. Credit: Jacobs School of Engineering/UC San Diego

Researchers at the University of California San Diego, UCSD, have managed to develop a light helmet providing a good Brain Computer Interface creating a set of probes made of silver and silver chloride that do not need gel to ensure conductivity and can operate through hairs.

Detecting electrical activity in the brain is quite complex since the electrical signals are weak and they get even weaker when detecting them through the scalp. In addition the detection at the scalp level picks up spurious electrical activity derived from muscle excitation (like the blinking of the eye!).  Hence it is essential to ensure a good conductivity and for this researchers use conductive gel (and try to get hairs out of the way as much as possible).  The gel and the positioning of electrodes need to be checked and restored after a few minutes. Because of this a BCI helmet has a tail since the wearer has to stay in a confined position, like sitting, and the connection with cables works out well.

With the new probes created at UCSD there is no more need for gel nor for continuous checking on the positioning of the helmet. Actually, one of the reasons for developing this advanced BCI was to make it possible to measure the brain activity during the day, as the person moved around doing his chores. Hence, the transmission of data has been engineered to take place using bluetooth, no more wires (tail) involved.

The new probe tips makes part of the story. However, most of this achievement is made possible by a sophisticated software that is able to distinguish between spurious signals and brain electrical activity. This is really the key making possible to follow the brain activity as the person moves about its daily activity.

The UCSD researchers are now selling their BCI to research centres but are expecting to hit a much wider (mass) market. The idea is that people (at least a few of them) will be interested in having a BCI connecting them to the cyberspace. In the next decade, this is their bet, we will seamlessly controlling the ambient around us and surf the internet plugging our brain directly on the web. 

This for some may be a scary prospect, but there is more! 

The BCI is providing a connection from the brain to the computer but it is also providing a connection from the computer to the brain! UCSD researchers are not shy to hint that their BCI can be used to make synapses in the brain to reconfigure themselves, under the stimulus a electrical signals, augmenting (I am using their words) the capabilities of the brain.

We have already proof that, indeed, electrical stimulation affects synaptic connection and this in turns modify the way our brain works (process data and acts on them). We are still far from understanding what type of electrical stimulation affects what (we do not have a recipe for stimulating a brain so that it gets smarter in calculus, as an example although we have a broad understanding how to make you feel more relaxed, or excited...), hence we are still years away from conditioning the brain, but it looks now more a matter of science and knowledge than a matter of technology.

The sophisticated software that comes along with the UCSD BCI is also able to analyse electrical patterns and learn from them. The goal is to be able to understand at individual brain level, what is going on and eventually how to interact from the web  onto the brain (what about soul computer interface?).

We have a Pandora box and we have very little idea on what will be the consequences of opening it.

Author - Roberto Saracco

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