Technology with attitude

$1.2 Million Grant to Improve Brain-Computer Interface for Disabled People

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A research team at Colorado State University has obtained a five-year, $1.2 million grant to develop brain-computer interactions that could help people with severe motor impairments do something as simple as turn on a TV by changing what they are thinking about.

The interdisciplinary project is expected to result in new computational strategies to measure brain waves and mathematically quantify electrical activity of the brain. The new computer applications could help people control assistive devices such as wheelchairs. Ultimately, researchers would like to create a system that an individual with disabilities could purchase and use in their home.

The military has expressed interest in the technology for the rehabilitation of injured soldiers, and the computer game industry has interest in new types of game controllers. “With one of the top occupational therapy programs in the country, Colorado State is uniquely positioned to conduct trials with people in their homes so we can truly gauge the effectiveness of these mathematical formulas,” said Chuck Anderson, a professor in the Computer Science department, the principal investigator on the National Science Foundation grant.

The researchers’ goal is to create a device that is able to type letters with brainwaves, quite similarly to the Intendix “thoughtwriter” project. “One technique we’ve used is to flash letters on a screen and record the brain wave associated with those letters. We want to improve user interfaces so people can more quickly select letters and type text messages.”

“A lot of this research is typically done in a laboratory, but we want feedback from people who can benefit from this technology in their homes,” Anderson said. “The unique aspect of our research team is that it brings together computer scientists, neuroscientists and occupational and rehabilitation scientists.”

To submit the grant proposal, university faculty and students spent the past two summers working with nine people with severe motor impairments using current Brain-Computer Interface (BCI) technology developed at Colorado State, said Davies, co-director with Gavin of the Brainwaves Research Lab. The impairments were the result of injuries or progressive neurological disease processes, such as head injury, spinal cord injuries and multiple sclerosis.“

The team is developing new ways of interpreting brain activity that was captured via an EEG cap. “Now we are writing computer programs that will sift through data and discover patterns that are present when people are doing more mental tasks,” Anderson said. “Signals will be different each time, depending on the task, but we have to find the patterns that are always there.

“We surveyed the participants on what the experience was like for them, which will contribute to the future development of the Brain-Computer Interface, taking into account the direct needs of people with disabilities,” Anderson said.