Until recently, the dream of being able to control oneís environment through thoughts had been in the area of science fiction. However, the advancement of technology has brought a new reality: Today, humans can use the electrical signals from brain activity to interact with, influence, or change their environments. The emerging field of brain-computer interface (BCI) technology may make individuals unable to speak and/or use their limbs to once again communicate or operate assistive devices for walking and manipulating objects. Brain-computer interface research is an area of high public awareness. Videos on YouTube as well as news reports in the lay media indicate intense curiosity and interest in a field that hope fully one day soon will dramatically improve the lives of many disabled persons affected by a number of different disease processes.
A BCI is a computer-based system that acquires brain signals, analyzes them, and translates them into commands that are relayed to an output device to carry out a desired action. Thus, BCIs do not use the brainís normal output pathways of peripheral nerves and muscles. This definition strictly limits the term BCI to systems that measure and use signals produced by the central nervous system (CNS). Thus, for example, a voice-activated or muscle-activated communication system is not a BCI. Furthermore, an electroencephalogram (EEG) machine alone is not a BCI because only it records brain signals but does not generate an output that acts on the userís environment.
It is a misconception that BCIs are mind-reading devices. Brain-computer interfaces do not read minds in the sense of extracting information from unsuspecting or unwilling users but enable users to act on the world by using brain signals rather than muscles. The user and the BCI work together. The user, often after a period of training, generates brain signals that encode intention, and the BCI, also after training, decodes the signals and translates them into commands to an output device that accomplishes the userís intention. The main goal of BCI is to replace or restore useful function to people disabled by neuromuscular disorders such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, cerebral palsy, stroke, or spinal cord injury.
From initial demonstrations of electroencephalography-based spelling and single-neuron-based device control, researchers have gone on to use electroencephalographic (EEG), intracortical, electrocorticographic, and other brain signals for increasingly complex control of cursors, robotic arms, prostheses, wheelchairs, and other devices. Brain-computer interfaces may also prove useful for rehabilitation after stroke and for other disorders. In the future, they might augment the performance of surgeons or other medical professionals. Brain-computer interface technology is the focus of a rapidly growing research and development enterprise that is greatly exciting scientists, engineers, clinicians, and the public in general. Its future achievements will depend on advances in three crucial areas. Brain-computer interfaces need signal-acquisition hardware that is convenient, portable, safe, and able to function in all environments.
Brain-computer interface systems need to be validated in long-term studies of real-world use by people with severe disabilities, and effective and viable models for their widespread dissemination must be implemented.
Finally, the day-to-day and moment-to-moment reliability of BCI performance must be improved so that it approaches the reliability of natural muscle-based function.
The writer is from the
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