Adam Wilson, PhD, Wants to Take a Gigabyte out of Brain Impairment

Adam Wilson poses for photo

Adam Wilson, PhD, and his new computer. With close to 1,000 processors, the computer is among the most powerful on UC’s campus. Photo by Cindy Starr/Mayfield Clinic.

The UC Gardner Neuroscience Institute has entered a futuristic realm with the hiring of J. Adam Wilson, PhD, the first person to communicate over the Internet using only his mind.

Last spring, while earning his PhD in biomedical engineering at the University of Wisconsin, Dr. Wilson donned a tight-fitting cap embedded with electrodes hooked up to a computer and an electroencephalograph that recorded brain activity. Then, in a “tweet heard round the world,” Dr. Wilson spelled out his message – “USING EEG TO SEND TWEET” – by concentrating on individual letters flashing before him on a computer screen. As Dr. Wilson focused on each letter, changes in brainwave patterns communicated the letter into the message line. Producing the 23 characters took nearly four minutes.

The software that produced “Tweeting by Thinking” was named the 9th best invention of 2009 by Time magazine, and Dr. Wilson — now a post-doctoral fellow in UC’s Department of Neurosurgery — was named one of Popular Science magazine’s “Brilliant 10 Class of 2009.”

The formal name for brain-activity communication is human brain-computer interface or BCI. “These are systems that are designed to let you communicate, via a computer, with loved ones or doctors or nurses,” Dr. Wilson says. “Or, with a nod to science fiction, they could someday allow you to control a prosthetic arm or wheelchair.”

Dr. Wilson has contributed extensively to the software suite BCI2000, which is used by more than 400 labs worldwide. His dissertation included work with implantable electrode systems called electrocorticograms (ECoG), which provide neural signals that are superior to those he used in his famous tweet. He has taught courses and workshops on BCIs at major institutions, including the University of Michigan and Tsinghua University in Beijing.

Dr. Wilson will assist Jed Hartings, PhD, Director of Clinical Monitoring for the Mayfield Clinic and Research Assistant Professor in UC’s Department of Neurosurgery, with a $1.96 million study, funded by the Department of Defense, about subtle disturbances in brain activity that occur in up to 60 percent of patients who have experienced serious trauma to the brain. Dr. Wilson will strive to create a system for processing and analyzing the dizzying amounts of data that the study is producing.

A Cincinnati native who was hoping to find a cutting-edge professional challenge in his hometown, Dr. Wilson found it in the DOD study, which uses the same types of electrodes that he worked with at Wisconsin. “I literally did a Google search for ‘Cincinnati ECoG,’ and Jed Hartings was one of the first names that came up,” he says.

Dr. Wilson relishes the opportunity to be immersed in UCNI ’s multidisciplinary environment. He appears uniquely positioned to make an impact in other neuroscience fields, including epilepsy, stroke, muscular dystrophy, ALS and Parkinson’s disease.

Learn more about Dr. Wilson’s work at NPR’s “Your Brain on Twitter — No Hands Necessary” and on his Web site.

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