Adam Wilson Awakens Community to Promise of BCI for People with Severe Disabilities

Woman puts on EMG cap while others watch.

Jed Hartings, PhD, left, Assistant Professor in the UC Department of Neurosurgery, watches as Efrain Torres adjusts an EEG cap on Pooja Kadambi at a BCI demonstration at UC. Photo by Cindy Starr / Mayfield Clinic.

Adam Wilson, PhD, Research Fellow in the University of Cincinnati (UC) Department of Neurosurgery, wrapped up a busy seven-day stretch on Monday as the keynote speaker at a Brain-Computer Interface (BCI) Workshop & Hands-on Seminar, presented jointly with the UC College of Engineering & Applied Science and g.tec Medical Engineering, of Graz, Austria, at the Tangeman University Center on the UC campus. The free event was targeted to people who wanted to learn BCI skills or integrate BCI technology into their area of expertise.

Brain-computer interface translates brain waves into control signals, enabling an individual to communicate or perform a task.  Beyond the ah-ha! factor, BCI has the real-world potential to help patients who have been paralyzed or have lost their ability to speak. The UC stop was part of g.tec’s two-week tour to six U.S. universities and research centers. (The tour also included Florida Hospital in Orlando, Georgia Institute of Technology, East Tennessee State University, Duke University and Old Dominion University.)

On May 16 Dr. Wilson made a presentation to about 270 middle school students and faculty at The Seven Hills School. And on June 2 he will demonstrate BCI to children attending the “Cool Jobs” event at the World Science Festival in New York City. Dr. Wilson hopes to further the children’s interest in science and technology by having two students play the computer game of pong not by moving joysticks but by activating their brains while wearing EEG caps. The children will control a paddle by simply twitching their hands or feet.

Dr. Wilson, who is affiliated with the UC Gardner Neuroscience Institute, a multi-disciplinary center within UC Health, is famous for work he performed as a doctoral student at the University of Wisconsin. Wearing a snug, swimming-type cap embedded with electrodes that was hooked up to a computer and an electroencephalograph, Dr. Wilson concentrated on individual letters flashing before him on a computer screen, causing them to form words on his computer screen. In so doing Dr. Wilson became the first person to send a tweet – “USING EEG TO SEND TWEET” – with only his brainwaves.

Today, his work centers on quantifying the vast amounts of brainwave data that are collected at UC Health’s University Hospital during EEG monitoring of patients who have suffered traumatic brain injury. He is also participating in advanced monitoring of people who have epilepsy.

At the BCI event at UC on Monday, six volunteers were fitted with EEG caps and hooked up to computers. A salty gel was used to make contact between the scalp and eight electrodes inside the caps. The syringes used to dispense the gel are dull and harmless. The electrodes picked up the activity of millions of neurons inside the brain.

To produce a specific letter on the keyboards in front of them, the volunteers were taught to focus on individual letters on a QUERTY keyboard while the entire keyboard came alive in random, Las Vegas-style waves of flashing lights. The students counted each time the targeted letter blinked, up to 30 times. The blinks lasted 100 milliseconds, while the time between was 75 milliseconds.

“When you’re paying attention to something, it changes your brain activity,” explained Brendan Allison, PhD, a visiting scholar at the University of California San Diego and a BCI researcher in Graz, Austria. “The system decides which letter you want to spell based only on your brain activity.”

In the first exercise, all six participants produced the correct word: W-A-T-E-R. Thereafter, the number of blinks was reduced, so that the students were producing the letters they wanted after 16, 8, 4 and even 2 blinks, dramatically shortening the time necessary to communicate in this way.

A more difficult task involved performing a movement by imagining it. In this case, the students followed a prompt and then tried to extend a bar on the computer to the left or right by imagining either their left or right fist opening and closing.

In the closing demonstration, Christoph Guger, PhD, CEO of g.tec, played the video game “World of Warcraft” using brainwaves. After being shot down in his first round, he survived the second, to applause from everyone watching.

Men look at laptops

After Monday’s event, Dr. Allison traveled to the west coast to see whether BCI could help an individual with late-stage ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). “The patient spelled seven characters at 100 percent accuracy on his first effort, providing a new communication channel that does not require any movement whatsoever,” Dr. Allison reported. “The patient is almost totally unable to move because of his ALS and will soon be completely ‘locked-in.’ Hence a BCI may soon be the only communication option for him.”

For more information about BCI, please visit: http://future-bnci.org/

–Cindy Starr

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