There are approximately 7.8 billion humans dominating the earth today. You and I are 2 of the 7.8 billion humans. Us human beings, are made up of many organs that keep us alive and let us create, innovate, invent fascinating technologies that we use today, such as this laptop. The boss of our intricate body is the brain. The brain is one of the most crucial and complex organ in our body and it is the brain that tells us to do everything that we do. For example, my brain sends a signal to muscles in my hand which in turn type these words. So our brain sends signals to our muscles and our muscles execute the demanded task. What if we could eliminate the second part of that process? What if I could simply type whatever I wanted with just my brain? What if I could play video games, drive drones or cars with just my brain? This sounds crazy doesn’t it? It sounds mind-blowing to me but could all of these exciting concepts really be a practical part of our future? Well, the answer to that is YES! So without further ado, I present to you Brain Machine Interfaces.
Brain Machine Interfaces?
Clearly, brain machine interfaces or BMIs have the potential to create a fascinating future for us but what exactly is a brain machine interface? Brain machine interfaces are basically pathways in which our brains can communicate commands or orders to a connected machine. Although this may seem like some plot for a sci-fi movie, it is truly something that we can do. In order to understand how brain machine interfaces work, we need to grasp a better understanding of how our brains interact with the rest of our body.
How do our Brains Communicate with the Rest of our Bodies?
Our brain is one of the if not the most complex organ in our body. It is also without question, one of the most pivotal organ in our body. Our brain is responsible for communicating orders and directions to the rest of our body. Our brain tells us to eat, sleep, move, run, type. How does our brain do this? How does it communicate with the rest of our body?
Our brain contains approximately 80 billion neurons in it. These neurons communicate with each other through electric and chemical signals.
In the neuron, the process begins with the dendrites which receive information being passed on from another neuron. The dendrites have receptors which pick up signals from other neurons that come in the form of chemicals. The signals that the dendrites pick up cause electrical changes inside the neuron which take place in the Soma. The Nucleus which contains DNA and genetic material of the cell is located inside the Soma. The Soma combines the information it has received from the Dendrites and passes the signal on into the Axon where the action potential is now moved into the axon terminals. From here, the signal causes the release of neurotransmitters which carry the signal to the dendrites of another neuron and the entire process is repeated throughout the neurons.
So, our brain sends electrical and chemical signals through these neurons to each other and eventually to muscles which control movements in our body. Though it seems like an extremely long process, the brain is able to send signals to parts in our body in just milliseconds.
Now that we know how our brain communicates with the rest of our body, we can move on to understanding of Brain Computer Interfaces will work.
How do Brain Machine Interfaces Work?
Like I mentioned earlier, our brains have billions of neurons which receive and pass on signals. BMIs record these signals and translate them into various commands for the external device. For example, in order for our brains to control a computer, the computer needs to detect the electrical signals from the brain and then interpret these into corresponding computer actions. The signals that the computer captures are then passed on to the BCI software which uses Machine Learning algorithms to correspond the collected electrical brain data with commands to control the computer or whatever the other machine may be.
Systems to Capture Signals from the Brain
So we have gained a good understanding of what BMIs are, how our brain sends signals to the rest of our body, and how BMIs work. Let’s take a look at the various systems used in BMIs in order to measure the electrical activity in the brain. While there are many systems that are used to measure the record the signals of the brain, we will focus on the most commonly used method today and that is EEG.
Electroencephalography or EEG is one of the most commonly used tools in order to measure signals in BMIs. In EEGs small discs or electrodes are placed around the scalp of the patients in order to analyze the electrical activity of neurons in the brain. EEGs do not record or analyze the signals of one particular neuron but analyzes the signals created when large amounts of neurons are active simultaneously. The data that EEGs collect is portrayed in the form of waves with different variances, frequencies and shape. Below is an image of how the data is shown on computers.
EEGs are usually used to measure brain activity during an event or to measure spontaneous brain activity. EEG is a relatively cheap way of collecting brain signals compared to other tools. It is easy to use, harmless, and is not discomforting for patients. This is all because it is a non-invasive tool and can measure signals without a surgery and without having to be inserted into a person’s head. Along with this, it is also an amazing tool because it can measure the brain activity and record results within a matter of milliseconds.
Although EEG has all of these benefits, there are some restraints that EEGs face. Since EEGs measure signals through large groups of neurons, it is extremely difficult to identify any activity to an exact spot in the brain. Another term for this is poor spacial precision. Secondly, EEGs are used to measure the activity of neurons in the cortex and is only limited to that. It does not have the ability to record signals in deeper parts of the brain.
Overall, EEGs are the most commonly used tool in in BCIs today. Its convenience, feasibility, and effectiveness make it a very valuable tool to the neuroscience industry. There are companies like Neural dust and Neuralink working on creating a smaller tool that can be implanted in the body and collect signals from there, but EEGs are still going to be a major part of our future.
Why Will BCIs Be so Important?
An estimated 1.2 percent or 3.4 million people in the US face epilepsy. Approximately 1 in every 26 people will develop epilepsy at some point in their lives.
Patients who are faced with epilepsy undergo many seizures that hinder the development of many skills such as talking and walking. Here is the story of a patient named Breanna Osborn.
Breanna is an 8 year old girl who has been diagnosed with epilepsy and has been facing seizures since the age of one. She faces up to 30 seizures in one day. Her condition and constant seizures have hampered her development of skills such as speech, movement, and basic tasks that kids her age perform.
While many patients who suffer from epilepsy can be treated through medication, and surgery, there are still some patients who face seizures even after the prescriptions and procedures. So how are patients like Breanna going to be treated and freed from epilepsy and seizures? Brain computer interfaces is indeed the answer to that question.
Doctors in Orlando are using a method called Electrocorticography or ECoGs to help treat patients like Breanna. This method is an invasive method which is done through surgery. Doctors open up the top of the patients skull and place electrodes inside to capture the electrical data from the brain and eventually identify where in the brain her seizures are originating from. They then remove this area.
After years of torment and torture, Breanna is now almost free of all seizures. Through the help of BCIs, Breanna undergoes 85% less seizures and will soon be seizure less. Breanna is amongst millions others who face epilepsy and have to suffer from traumatic seizures on a daily basis. BMIs are providing hope to these patients and will potentially be the cure to epilepsy. Below is the story of Breanna Osborn.
While the use of ECoGs to cure Breanna was successful, ECoGs do not eliminate all seizures in many patients which is why neuroscientists are still ambitious and striving hard at creating a better, more convenient, and more effective method of treating patients with Epilepsy.
Neuroscientists at NeuroPace have developed an award-winning system to deal with seizures providing relief to Epilepsy patients. This system is called the RNS system and is designed to prevent any seizures from occurring.
The RNS system is great because it treats seizures only when they are about to happen. What this means is when the system detects unusual electrical activity in the brain, it stimulates pulses to kill the unusual activity. These unusual activities in the brain are what cause seizures, so ending and combating this activity by stimulating pulses, stops seizures from taking place. While the brain is experiencing normal electric activity, the device does not do anything but keeps monitoring the activity until it notices unusual activity which is when it sends pulses to normalize the activity.
There are so many positives to this technology but the greatest part about the system is that it is completely safe and convenient. In order to place the chip inside the person’s brain, no brain tissue needs to be removed, making the entire process extremely safe. Another positive is that the RNS system executes without letting the patient feel anything. While stimulating pulses and fighting the seizures, the patient is oblivious that the process is taking place making the entire system painless and not discomforting.
This technology is so efficient and harmless that it can be a permanent alternative to medicine and other surgeries as is it completely side effect free. Over 90 percent of the users of this technology have reported that their seizures have been fully eliminated. Patients can carry out their daily activities, play sports, and perform other tasks without having to worry about the device or their seizures.
Prosthetics and Paralysis
The World Health Organization estimates that approximately 30 million people all around the world require and are in need of prosthetics. As of 2013, there were over 5.4 million people just in the US living with paralysis. These are two problems that millions face around the globe, changing their lives forever, often leaving patients help-less and completely dependent. BMIs have the potential to change that. There are many companies investing, researching, and discovering ways we can use BMIs to positively impact the lives of millions of patients around the globe but one of the most fascinating companies working on the project is…….Neural Dust!
Engineers at UC Berkeley have designed a sensor called Neural Dust. Neural Dust is a electrical sensor that can be implanted in the body and record electrical signals in nerves in real time. The reason it is such an incredible technology is because it can perform tasks other sensors can do but Neural Dust is wire-less and smaller than a grain of rice! Believe it or not, scientists are still not satisfied and are striving to make Neural Dust even smaller.
Neural Dust has a lot of potential as it is not only limited to treating epilepsy but can be used to check the health of key organs, stimulate nerves to suppress appetite and control bladder function. Along with this, Neural Dust is looking extremely promising in the field of prosthetics. It can record electrical signals from nerve cells in the brain, and when ultrasound is sent to the neural dust, it sends back data about the nerve’s electrical activity. This data is then analyzed and it uncovers different electrical patterns which instruct movement of the prosthetics.
Another huge company founded by one of the most disruptive innovators in the world today is Neuralink, founded by none other than Elon Musk.
Neuralink is one of the most well-known companies in the BCI industry. Part of that is due to their CEO, Elon Musk, but a huge part of it is the insane work they are doing and the great potential they have. They have given a monkey the ability to control a computer with its brain, but this will seem unimpressive when you learn about the other projects Neuralink is working on. They are using similar methods as other companies to record neural activity but through a more convenient and comfortable method. Neuralink is not only using BCIs to cure diseases and create prosthetics, but are looking to connect our minds with devices like our phones, laptops, TVs, along with many more. But the most impressive and ambitious goals of Neuralink, is their chase to find a way to have human minds communicate and transmit information with each other. To give you a better sense of everything about Neuralink, here is a great video.
What Does Our Future Look Like With BCIs?
The importance of BCIs moving forwards is extreme. BCIs are already being used to cure diseases and conditions like epilepsy, paralysis, spinal cord injuries, and many more. Not only can BCIs be used to cure diseases but they can also provide us with an extremely fascinating future in the entertainment industry. Using BCIs to play games, fly drones, drive cars could all become possibilities. It may even be possible for humans to communicate with each other using just the brain. As we have seen, there are various companies such as Neuralink, Neurable, Neural Dust, NeuroSpace, and Emotiv hard at work experimenting and discovering what the future of BCIs looks for us. While some of the more impressive projects are still years away from becoming a reality, BMIs are still extremely essential and impactful and will continue to be in the near future. So keep an eye out, for soon, we may be in a world where we can read each other’s minds!