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Headset turns mind-controlled computers into reality

Wireless headsets enable people to communicate with computers via thought and could have applications for chronic pain relief. Image courtesy of Neuroelectrics
Wireless headsets enable people to communicate with computers via thought and could have applications for chronic pain relief. Image courtesy of Neuroelectrics

Scientists who made it possible for two people to communicate across continents by thought alone are now developing their headset technology for commercial use in medical applications.

Earlier this year, researchers successfully transmitted messages from one person’s brain to another using only electromagnetic fields and an internet connection. The first person transmitted their thoughts to a computer and another computer produced signals that were interpreted by the recipient’s brain.

While instant telepathy may still be some way off, the breakthrough paves the way for a new way of communicating with technology, and with each other.

‘Exchanges of information have always flowed through our senses,’ said Dr Giulio Ruffini, CEO of the technology firm Starlab, who coordinated the EU-funded HIVE project. ‘We wanted to show that this traditional channel can be bypassed.’

During the experiment, the results of which were published in August, the words ‘hola’ and ‘ciao’ were transmitted between the brains of people in India and France. The sender wore a special headset developed by HIVE, which recorded his brain activity as he communicated the words via binary code by imagining moving either his feet, which produced a 0 signal, or hands, which produced a 1.

‘The brain is a very complex structure. We are just beginning to understand how it works and heals.’

Dr Giulio Ruffini, CEO, Starlab

The message was then sent over the internet as a kind of Morse code to France. It was transmitted to the receiver by pulsed magnetic fields which stimulated neurons in the cortex, and were then perceived as a series of light flashes. The encoded greetings were received with a level of accuracy higher than 80 %.

Direct communication

The ultimate goal of HIVE, which finished in 2012, was to allow human minds to interact directly with computers using non-invasive, wireless technology. The headsets that were developed are now being commercialised by Neuroelectrics, a European start-up which was set up as a spin-off from Starlab to optimise the technology for research and medical applications. 

‘The brain is a very complex structure,’ said Dr Ruffini. ‘We are just beginning to understand how it works and heals.’

One of the advantages of the headset, called Starstim, is that it in addition to monitoring brain activity it can stimulate up to eight points in the brain simultaneously, enabling signals to be sent directly into the brain in order to alter neural activity.

Dr Javier Márquez Ruiz, at the University of Pablo de Olavide in Spain provided much of the neurological foundations on which the HIVE project was based. He said that the headsets make it possible to modulate activity in the cortex in ways that bear an unprecedented resemblance to natural brain patterns.

Coupling more sophisticated stimulation techniques with computers and electronic sensors could ultimately induce artificial sensations in people with deteriorated senses or enhance brain capabilities in a variety of innovative ways.

Medical applications

The first medical application researchers have found for the devices is to reduce chronic pain following spinal-cord lesions. The products developed by Neuroelectrics can be used in combination with visual displays to show paralysed patients computer-generated images of themselves moving their limbs while applying currents to the appropriate areas in their brain.

Results to date show that this treatment can reduce neuropathic pain over the course of a 20-minute virtual workout. According to Ana Maiques, CEO of Neuroelectrics, the technology can also help treat epilepsy and depression, and rehabilitate patients that have suffered from strokes.

While scientists have used external magnetic coils to stimulate neurons for the past 30 years, until now equipment has been bulky and expensive. ‘HIVE has developed the first portable alternative,’ said Maiques. ‘The Starstim device can both stimulate and monitor brain activity using small currents in electrodes placed around the scalp.’

Separately, Dr Pedro Cavaleiro Miranda, a researcher at the University of Lisbon, is building on the work that he contributed to the HIVE project to disrupt the growth of brain tumours using more intense electric fields. 

Innovation winner

Neuroelectrics' CEO Ana Maiques was one of three recipients of this year’s EU prize for Women Innovators. She has a degree in economics and is also a founder of Starlab.

Maiques is pleased by the increasing role women are playing in research and innovation, and favours changes in education and culture that could encourage girls to take part in science from a very early age.

‘It is good that female scientists and innovators are getting more visibility,’ she said. ‘For every prize given, there are many more women whose work deserves to be recognised, but at least it provides young girls with a more balanced selection of role models.’

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