Imagine a world where you can control your environment using only your mind. This dream is slowly becoming a reality with the development of Brain-Computer Interface (BCI) technology.
Dr. John Butler, professor of electrical and computer engineering, said BCIs are able to analyze electrical signals from the brain and relay them to output devices that carry out the desired action. This could look like writing on a computer, controlling bionic limbs or wheelchairs and even flying drones This allows BCIs to restore function to those disabled from disorders like Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS) as well as spinal cord injuries, stroke, cerebral palsy and others.
“Applications would be huge,” Butler said. “Of course, people with disabilities (and) quadriplegic people who can’t move to control things would be a big one, and eventually going into video games and completely immersive VR tech where you can control it all with your mind.”
An example of this is a man named Dennis DeGray. After snapping his neck between the second and third vertebrae, DeGray became paralyzed from the collarbones down. After being approached by Jaimie Henderson, professor of neurosurgery at Stanford University, DeGray agreed to participate in a BCI study.
Henderson implanted a small BCI in the form of a microchip into DeGray’s motor cortex, a brain region associated with voluntary movement.
After more than 1,800 hours of practice and 400 training sessions, DeGray became the world’s fastest mental typist. By visualizing himself writing words as if with a pen and paper, DeGray was able to mentally write thousands of words with his mind, reaching a record of 18 words per minute.
BCI technology has also allowed DeGray to play video games, manipulate robotic limbs, send texts and email, and even fly a drone using only his mind.
This is just one example of BCI. In 2016, Nathan Copeland, who had been paralyzed by a car accident, was able to fist-bump President Barack Obama with a robotic hand controlled by electrodes in his brain.
In 2021, Pancho, a man who lost his voice due to a stroke, was able to speak again using electrodes placed his brain.
These stories, along with numerous others, display the limitless applications of BCI technology.
However, there is still much to work out before BCIs become standard practice.
“It’s very complicated technology to get brain signals and turn that into something that’s usable,” Butler said.
Several companies have explored devices that do not require implantation in the brain, according to a recent New York Times article. By using a headset like an electroencephalogram (EEG), there has been some success. However, these devices often sacrifice the power and precision of electrical signals to maintain safety.
Recent advances in BCI technology have aimed to find a less invasive method of implantation. Companies like Neuralink and Synchron are developing a smaller BCI that can be implanted in the brain with only minor surgery.
In 2021, Synchron became the first company to receive approval from the FDA to conduct human trials of a permanently implantable BCI.
Philip O’Keefe was a participant in one such study. Since being diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease, O’Keefe has struggled with mobility and communication. A few months into the trial, O’Keefe became the first person in the world to post on Twitter with a BCI.
“No need for keystrokes or voices,” O’Keefe tweeted. “I created this tweet just by thinking it.”
This is just the tip of the iceberg. More and more research is being poured into the field
“This technology is important because it will help us to automate complicated, potentially risky processes in several industries,” said Josiah Norrie, senior mechanical engineering major. “BCIs could be the miracle many people with disabilities have been waiting for their whole life.”