Becoming Cyborgs with Brain-Computer Interfaces
An introduction to Brain-Computer Interfaces, and how they can revolutionize our lives.
In this article:
- What are Brain-Computer Interfaces?
- The Basics
- Invasive vs. Non-Invasive Brain-Computer Interfaces
- Types of Brain-Computer Interface Technology
- Well… how does this actually work?
- Out Right Now
- What can we do with BCIs?
- A Revolutionary Technology
- Key Takeaways
What if I told you that you could become a cyborg? Well… almost.
While modern science can’t make you a robot yet, it can for sure get you on the edge of your seat. Neuroscientists and engineers alike are finding ways to integrate technology into our bodies. Here’s what’s up.
What are Brain-Computer Interfaces?
A Brain-Computer Interface, or BCI for short, is a system that directly connects your brain to external technology. And no, it’s not voice-activated like Siri; it’s directly activated with your brain activity.
Research initially began in the 1970’s, but didn’t start producing anything concrete until the mid-1990’s. The first attempt to implant a Brain-Computer Interface into the brain was made in 1973 by Jacques Vidal. He recorded electrical activity from the device using EEG technology.
Invasive vs. Non-invasive Brain-Computer Interfaces
There are actually three different forms of Brain-Computer Interfaces: Invasive, Semi-Invasive, and Non-invasive BCIs. These are relative to whether or not the device requires neurosurgery to be implanted into the brain.
Invasive Brain-Computer Interfaces require some form of neurosurgery to implant the device into the brain. Most devices that are invasive use electrodes that are inserted into the brain’s surface. This allows for direct communication between the brainwaves and computer, since the technology is touching the brain. Invasive BCIs tend to have a better signal because of this, so data is more accurate.
Semi-Invasive BCIs aren’t as invasive as fully-implanted Brain-Computer Interfaces. However, they do still require some sort of procedure that implants a device under the skull. This allows signals to be clearer as well.
Most research in neurotechnology is focused on tech that doesn’t require a procedure to implant the device. Non-invasive BCIs don’t require a procedure and are typically more versatile. Most non-invasive BCI devices on the market are EEG devices, or electroencephalography, which we’ll get into later. They are often designed as a headband or cap to detect signals from a faraway distance.
Types of Brain-Computer Interface Technology
- Electroencephalography (EEG)
Electroencephalography is a test that measures and records the electrical activity of neurons in the brain. The brain communicates everything from thoughts to commands by sending electrical impulses through our brain cells. When an EEG is conducted, a computer device reads these signals and translates them into a language that a computer can understand and display.
In hospitals, EEGs are done to detect neurological conditions such as brain tumors, brain inflammation, brain damage, and more. However, as stated in the previous section, EEGs are also used in many consumer BCI products. There are two types of EEGs: dry and wet. Wet EEGs use a cap and gel, hence the “wet” component. This requires a lot of preparation, as each EEG compartment needs to be properly lubricated in order to get a clear signal from the neurons. EEG caps are often used for medical tests or scientific lab testing to get a precise read on neuronal activity. Another type of EEG is a dry EEG. These don’t typically come in the form of a cap, and instead typically take the shape of a headband or stick-on electrodes. Instead of using a gel to get signals, these products will use a metal like copper or silver. This oftentimes proves to not be as efficient as using a wet EEG, but scientists have worked on improving the technology.
2. Electrocorticography (ECoG)
Electrocorticography, or ECoG, is an invasive form of Brain-Computer Interface technology. It uses recordings of electrical activity of the brain from macro-electrodes, which are placed on the surface of the brain. It was first implemented in epilepsy surgery, where it can be used to create a map of the brain to pinpoint exactly where seizures are taking place. The macro-electrodes that ECoG uses have the ability to get detailed recordings of brain activity without causing any harm to the brain. They also have the best spatial and spectral resolution, which are the technology’s ability to detect super small features, and the ability to accurately measure wavelengths.
3. Neural Dust
The “Neural Dust” device is one of the most innovative inventions yet. It’s a miniscule, wireless sensor that can be implanted to monitor internal muscles and organs and report data via ultrasound. Created by UCBerkeley engineers, it opens the door to potentially using electroceutical (neural circuit therapies), to treat life-altering disorders like epilepsy. Neural Dust has already been implanted into rats and has a high probability of having a huge impact on how we diagnose and treat patients. By using a piezoelectric crystal, the device emits a tiny voltage of electricity to bring you data. This will not only impact those with neurological disorders, but those with illnesses that impact other parts of the body.
Functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, is a technology that is used to image the entire brain. It is the gold-standard for imaging, and also the most common way that hospitals do it. The machine images the entire brain by using your hemoglobin levels to detect changes in blood oxygen levels in the case of neuron activity. While this type of imaging works well, it isn’t portable and is quite expensive, making it not the best option for everyone requiring brain imaging.
5. Magnetoencephalography (MEG)
This is another type of brain imaging that is used to get a visual representation of the brain. It is done by wearing a helmet that detects and records magnetic fields produced by electrical currents in the brain. While quite accurate, it can be pricey and isn’t as good as fMRI for localizing brain activity.
Well… how does this actually work?
Let’s do a break-down of how brain-computer interfaces work.
Think of your brain as the control center of your body. It tells your organs how to run and teaches your body what to do in different situations. Now, the brain is separated into different parts that all have slightly different functions. Despite the different functions, each part of the brain is constantly generating electrical signals with individual neurons. Neurons are cells that transmit info over long distances around the brain. When neurons communicate with each other, an electrical current occurs. Since there are billions of neurons in each of our brains working at the same time, they generate enough voltage to be displayed and measured on a computer.
In the case of EEG, these signals are measured through electrodes that are placed on the scalp. The electrical activity is recorded through a voltage difference between two electrodes, where the current may be different. To have a proper and accurate recording, you need four things: electrodes, amplifiers, A/D converters, and a recording device.
Electrodes: These can be disposable, reusable, consumer headbands, electrode caps, or any other type of electrode. However, there must be at least three to get accurate signals.
Amplifier: Since EEGs are non-invasive, an amplifier is used to make the actual signals discernable. Think of it like a speaker. After going through the amplifier, signals can be multiplied hundreds or thousands of times, which really puts into perspective just how small these signals in our brains can be!
A/D Converters: Analogue to Digital Converters convert signals in the brain into a form that can be represented on a computer. Think of it like Google Translate translating phrases from one language to another– but much more accurately!
Recording Device: This would be a computer or other device that would record, store, and display the brain signals.
Out Right Now
There are companies right now that are applying BCIs and making the benefits accessible to everyone. Here are some examples:
Currently has an eight-sensor EEG band that allows you to stay focused for faster and longer. They also have a developer app that allows you to code different neuro apps with notion, the software tool, and the EEG band.
Is building an EEG headset that strives to help you stay focused for longer, and improve your mental health. The CEO, Ramses Alcaide, sees the product as a first step to consumer BCIs. The headset would allow you to start, stop and skip music… with your mind. It will also be able to create custom playlists with certain emotions, and allow computing to become more spatial (heighten human interaction with machines to retain and manipulate its environment). The company received 6 million in their series A funding.
One of the most well known neurotech companies, famous for its affiliation with Elon Musk. Neuralink is creating a BCI that will allow humans to possibly outpace Artificial Intelligence. The interface is a 4mm chip that connects to an earpiece with Bluetooth. It is also currently implanted with a regular neurosurgery, although the company hopes to make the procedure less invasive. Neuralink products have been implanted into animals in the past, and also have the possibility of being able to rehabilitate someone with neurological diseases.
What could we do with BCIs?
Brain-Computer Interfaces open up many new opportunities to solve real-world problems. One problem that BCIs can make an impact on is disabilities, especially neurological disabilities. This can be diseases ranging from Multiple Sclerosis to Parkinson’s or Alzheimer's. Companies like Neuralink have already created implants that have the potential to create a better life for someone with a disability.
Recently, Philip O-Keefe, a 62-year-old man with paralysis and MS, posted a tweet on Twitter with a Brain-Computer Interface that had been implanted into his head. In the future, we will be able to interact with our devices seamlessly, and do much more for those who can’t do it themselves.
Another thing BCIs may be able to do is impact the fields of personalized medicine and preventative medicine. Using technologies like Neural Dust, we would be able to find what therapies work best, and see results of those therapies in real time. This would alter how we take care of our bodies, and allow us to know what’s best for us based on real time changes.
Brain-Computer Interfaces could even change the way we interact with our environments. For instance, instead of physically clicking or tapping something, you could just look and think about the action, and it would be done. With technology like neurotech smart glasses, you could do this!
A Revolutionary Technology
It’s safe to say that cyborgs and superhumans aren’t in fact sci-fi anymore. Instead, it could be in the near future! With the use of Brain-Computer Interfaces, we can not only revolutionize other fields, but also ourselves.
- Brain-Computer Interfaces are the intersection between the brain and modern technology
- There are three different forms of BCIs: Invasive, Non-Invasive, and Semi-Invasive.
- There are many types of BCIs, the most commonly utilized is EEGs to track and analyze brainwaves.
- Neurons transmit info over long distances, and when this happens, an electrical current occurs. In EEGs, these are measured with electrodes, which are then amplified to become discernible. Then, they are converted to a form that a computer can understand, then is recorded by a device.
- Companies are starting to create BCI consumer devices in the form of a headband, headset, or implant. The most common use on the market would be for coding a neuro app and tracking focus.
- In the future, Brain-Computer Interfaces might be able to solve real-world problems like disabilities. There has already been an example of how a person could use this technology to replace limbs that have been amputated or paralyzed.
This technology isn’t just science fiction anymore; it’s the FUTURE.
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