Technology with attitude

Call to regulate brainwave games as medical devices

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Video games and educational aids that ‘tap into’ brainwaves should be classified as medical devices, it has been claimed. The games, which use a helmet or head band to pick up electrical signals, ought to be regulated in the same way as breast implants, pace makers and heart valves, according to an influential think tank.

Although such technology is in its infancy, it is undergoing rapid development.

There are many examples already on the market. The Uncle Milton Star Wars Force Trainer was probably the first toy to use brainwaves as a control method. The player, adopting the role of a Jedi Master from the Star Wars films to harness the power of “The Force”, wears an EEG headset that responds to electrical activity from the brain and moves a ball up and down a vertical tube. Among the first was the Swedish game Mindball, in which brain waves are used to control a ball’s movement across a table. As well as providing entertainment, the game is intended to train players to be more relaxed and focused. The MindFlex Duel offers a very similar multiplayer gameplay.

In future, games like these should be subjected to medical device scrutiny under European Commission law, according to a new report from the Nuffield Council on Bioethics. The recommendation is part of a wider call for “smarter” regulation to ensure technology that connects with the brain is used in ways that put the care and safety of patients first.

Medical devices currently cover items as wide ranging as sticking plaster, hospital beds, hip replacements, X-ray machines, heart valves and pacemakers, and breast implants. Added to this list should be games and training aids that employ brain-computer interfaces (BCIs), say the Nuffield Council experts.

Professor Graeme Laurie, from the University of Edinburgh, a member of the working party that produced the report, said: “What we would like to see is action from the European Commission to classify neuro devices as medical devices for regulatory purposes, even when they’re being used for non-health care ends, such as gaming and educational purposes. What this would mean is that appropriate attention could be given to the health impact of these devices, because we believe that is where the priority should lie.”

Chairman Tom Baldwin, Professor of Philosophy at the University of York, said “some big players” in the gaming world appeared to be waiting on the side lines for the technology to progress. “At the moment, BCI technology is not making much impact on the gaming industry, but the sense we got from the Americans we talked to was that everybody was just watching,” he added.

Other technology assessed in the report included treatments that stimulated neurons either with probes inserted into the brain or magnetic fields.

Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS), which employs electrode probes, is already used to treat Parkinson’s disease. Transcranial Brain Stimulation (TBS), which uses magnetic fields, is licensed to treat depression in the US but only has a research permit in the UK.

To download a PDF overview of the report click here: Novel neurotechnologies: intervening in the brain

To access the full report, order a printed copy or learn more about Nuffield Council, visit this link: nuffieldbioethics.org/neurotechnology