Impaired to Move the World
February 26, 2011
Imagine a mind-control panel with which the mobility impaired patients, such as those with Parkinson's disease, can stay in their beds while controlling their electrical appliances just by thinking. That may have been impossible in the past, but researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) just made it a possibility through the use of their new "wearable" brain control system.
From the 1970s, the scientists at UCLA first began their research on a brain computer interface (BCI), which allows the brains of human beings to directly communicate with a computer. This project received a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and DARPA. Through this granted program, several BCI systems have been built to capture brain waves, trying to interpret them for meaningful thoughts.
In fact, brain waves were first scientifically observed in 1912 through the use of Electroencephalograms, or EEGs, a kind of bioelectric potential related to the thoughts of human being. During later decades, scientists tried various methods to decode these mysterious signals. This has been found to be a complicated and expensive task. The BCI system itself usually contains a large desktop and dozens of electrodes which need to be attached to the scalp with a gel or paste. So, conventional BCI systems are intrusive and not suitable for daily use, especially considering their high – and for most people, unaffordable – cost.
Some 40 years later, three UCLA graduate students, Wenyao Xu, Fang Gong and Ju-Yueh Lee, led by Prof. Majid Sarrafzadeh, from the Wireless Health Institute, have made BCI technology much more accessible by inventing a low-cost, light-weight and wearable BCI device. This device looks like a normal Bluetooth headset, but it can understand the human brain wave and allows the user to control almost anything they want through thought.
"The traditional BCI is burdensome and has to be used in a lab environment. And the cost is around half of million dollars. Additionally, the layman wouldn't know how to use it. However, our device is easy to use and won't cause any complicated interface that would affect a user's normal daily life," said Prof. Majid Sarrafzadeh. This reveals the advantages of new BCI system over its conventional counterparts. "More important is that the cost could be very low after mass production. I envision many applications based on this device," added Prof. Sarrafzadeh.
In this project, UCLA researchers have built a new wearable "smart headset," which acts as the signal acquisition module. It can be worn on the head but does not restrict the user's activity because it uses wireless communication. After the user puts the headset on, it acquires the user's brain waves via the sensor on the forehead, passing the captured signals to a data analysis module, where the brain waves can be deciphered for the production of meaningful control signals. The following sentences summarize the thinking of Wenyao Xu, who is a third-year Ph.D. student in UCLA's Computer Science Department and who serves as architecture designer:
"We integrated BCI into a Bluetooth headset. Leveraging the system-on-chips technology, the headset acquires the brain wave via a simple but effective way. It is complementary to existing assistive technologies in terms of mental control."
More importantly, the headset is very lightweight, weighing-in at a mere 10g of total weight. Additionally, it is affordable, at a cost of about $19. In contrast, a conventional BCI system costs thousands of dollars and weighs hundreds of kilograms. Therefore, the new BCI device, properly marketed, will be more accessible and more affordable to more people.
Another significant component in the new BCI component is the real-time data analysis module. This module is fed with the brain waves from the signal acquisition module, decoding the meaningless bioelectric signals into the meaningful device-control signals in real-time.
"Decoding the brain wave is a highly difficult job and very time-consuming. Perceptible delay can dramatically degrade the performance of our brain control system. To handle this problem, we came up with some novel algorithms to decode the brain waves for real-time control purpose," Fang Gong said. Mr. Gong is a third-year Ph.D. student in UCLA's Electrical Engineering department, serving as the software designer for this project. "These more efficient algorithms maximize computing resources, a chief reason why the unit can be so tiny."
To control appliances with precision, new users need to spend some time training on the execution of the process by thinking about different control actions (such as turn on/off, increase/decrease, left/right, etc.), so the brain control system can recognize the user's unique thought patterns and to further build connections between these patterns and corresponding actions. Once the brain control system is "trained" and engaged, it can detect the user's thought patterns from captured brain waves and translate them into intended control signals. The detection and translation operations would be conducted within a very short time span to guarantee a real-time response from the appliances, thus the requirement of highly efficient and advanced algorithms.
In the first stage of demonstrating the brain control system, the UCLA researchers worked with volunteers to test the system by turning on and turning off reading lamps when the users were consciously thinking about that particular control action. The brain control system can then detect non-conscious thoughts, such as concentration/focus and relaxation, further adjusting the brightness of the lamps dynamically in response to user's focus extent. Similar demonstrations were showcased during several conferences, such as the third UCLA Technology and Aging Conference in 2010. Visitors to the conferences, in large numbers, lined-up to try this system, all of the awed at the experience, amazed at the BCI's functionality.
Currently, the brain control system is engaged in a pilot study using volunteers at UCLA. In this pilot study the use of the BCI is limited to its application using only a few electronic appliances. After this pilot study is complete, UCLA researchers will apply the BCI in the "real" applications. "About 50,000 Americans are diagnosed with Parkinson's disease each year," said Dr. Bruce Dobkin, a professor in the Neuroscience Department at UCLA. "We started to seek a method to help these mobility impaired patients a long time ago, and our genius students responded, bringing forth exactly what we are looking for."
Besides neuron-control, this new BCI has also attracted the interest of professionals in other domains. "There are no devices available that can obtain brain waves in the way that this smart headset will," said Dr. Gary Small, a professor of Psychiatry and Bio-Behavioral Sciences and Parlow-Solomon Professor on Aging at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. "We are eager to use this device in the clinical study related to memory. We will evaluate its effectiveness and perhaps suggest refinements with the help of our clients, who come from all over the United States, and our experienced staff." Dr. Gary Small is the author of The Memory Bible, which introduces an innovative strategy for keeping the brain young and with good memory. This book was awarded the designation on being a New York Times best seller in 2009.
Prof. Majid Sarrafzadeh believes there are a plethora of other potential healthcare related applications that can be enhanced by this brain control system, one of which is fall prevention for elderly. "We have proved the brain wave is related to falls. And this smart headset can be used to prevent falls among the elder. It should be the next milestone of brain-control technology."
UCLA Wireless Health Institute:
The Wireless Health Institute (WHI) at UCLA was found in 2008 and is the first group in the nation focusing on next-generation medical system development. The experts and staffs at WHI are from the Electrical Engineering, Computer Science, Biomedical Engineering, Medicine, Public Health and hospital sectors. Taking advantaging of their interdisciplinary backgrounds, they are able to integrate cutting-edge technologies into real-life biomedical applications. Some of their research outcomes have been brought to market.
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