Issue 43, October 2013
bulletBrain-Computer Interface
bulletInnovation: Paralyzed Woman's Thoughts Control a DLR Lightweight Robot Arm and Five-Fingered Hand
bulletEvent: Moving the World by Thought: Dimensions and Perspectives of Brain-Computer Interfaces
bulletBrain Painting
bulletBrain Chess: Making Thoughts Play
bulletInterview: Prof. Dr. Niels Birbaumer - Germany's BCI Research Pioneer
Brain-Computer Interface

American philosopher, essayist, and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, "The ancestor of every action is a thought." During his lifetime, he probably never imagined how literal this sentence would one day become - that people would be able to elicit certain actions from machines with just a mere thought. Although this possibility may still sound like science fiction to some, this once far-fetched idea is now a reality, thanks to a technique called brain-computer interface (BCI), also known as brain-machine- or human-machine interface. Ever since the 1920s, when German scientist Hans Berger recorded electric signals in the human brain through his newly-invented diagnostic tool called an electroencephalogram (EEG), researchers from various disciplines have sought to "read the mind" by studying these brain waves. It was not until the mid-nineties, however, that noteworthy progress was made in this research field, based on experiments on animals and humans.

Generally, there are two different methods used when employing BCI's: One is non-invasive, i.e. electrodes are placed on a subject's head, facilitating the measurement of neural activity in broader regions of the brain. The other method is invasive, in which miniature wires are directly connected to the brain, which enables the activity of single neurons to be detected. What both BCI methods share in common, however, is that they translate electric signals from various brain regions into data that can be understood by an external device, such as a computer or robot.

One focus of BCI research is developing ways to enable individuals with disabilities, especially so-called "locked-in patients" (who are mentally capable, but physically paralyzed), to express themselves and conduct basic actions. The potential applications of BCI research expand beyond the realm of healthcare to other exciting areas, such as automotive security. If a car brake is linked directly to a driver's brain, rather than to his or her foot, the brake is activated milliseconds faster than if it had been triggered by the driver's leg; in some instances, this could make the difference between life and death. The video gaming industry also holds a vested interest in the highly lucrative possibilities that BCI has to offer.



article2Innovation: Paralyzed Woman's Thoughts Control a DLR Lightweight Robot Arm and Five-Fingered Hand 

Source: Deutsches Zentrum f�r Luft- und Raumfahrt   


A 58-year-old American woman paralyzed by a stroke was once again able to serve herself a drink of coffee, thanks to a state-of-the-art DLR robot arm and hand, which she controlled with neural signals sent directly from her brain. Researchers at the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum f�r Luft- und Raumfahrt, DLR) presented these exciting results arising from their collaboration with researchers at Brown University, the United States Department of Veterans Affairs, and Massachusetts General Hospital. It took just a few moments for the woman to grasp the drinking bottle with the robot hand, bring it up to her mouth, and drink through a straw. 

As the trial participant pictures herself moving her own arm, her brain sends the associated signals to a computer via a four-by-four millimeter sensor. This sensor had been implanted by surgeons more than five years prior in the motor area of her cerebral cortex. The computer then decodes the signals, and the DLR bionic arm and five-fingered hand execute these decoded instructions, enabling the woman to drink on her own for the first time in almost 15 years.


article3Event: Moving the World by Thought: Dimensions and Perspectives of Brain-Computer Interfaces


November 7, 2013, 6:30 - 8:30 p.m.
Sponsors: German Research Foundation, German Center for Research and Innovation
Location: German Center for Research and Innovation, 871 United Nations Plaza, New York, NY

It is an old dream of humankind to communicate and interact with the environment by only using the power of thoughts. Recent advances in sensor technology and computational capacities suggest that this dream is starting to become a reality. Brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) translate electric or metabolic brain activity into control signals for external devices. People unable to communicate or move can learn to use such systems to interact with their environment and regain lost functions or impaired abilities.

On November 7, two renowned neuroscientists from Germany and the U.S. will discuss their pioneering interventions on brain metabolic self-regulations in psychiatric disorders and how this technology will change the general view of brain function and self-control.

Prof. Dr. Niels Birbaumer, a pioneer in this field of research and Senior Professor and Director at the Institute of Medical Psychology and Behavioral Neurobiology at the University of T�bingen, will speak at the event. He will be joined by Dr. Leonardo G. Cohen, Chief of the Human Cortical Physiology and Stroke Neurorehabilitation Section at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

For more information on the event, click here; to register by November 4, here.


article4Brain Painting


Source: Prof. Dr. Andrea K�bler, Institute of Psychology, University of W�rzburg

Brain Painting is an application of brain-computer interface that enables participants to express themselves creatively by painting pictures. Instead of using letters and words to communicate, individuals can choose shapes, signs, and colors and place or "paint" them on a virtual canvas. A virtual brush is moved within the BCI matrix to select from up to 20 visual options offered per minute.

Patients in a locked-in state, who have very limited muscle movement required for communication, can use this cutting-edge BCI technology at home. Brain painting can even be supervised remotely by BCI experts, if necessary. Currently, two such end users with late stage amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), often referred to as "Lou Gehrig's Disease," are continuing their careers as professional and lay painters at home.

Significant others can also provide support; within a few minutes, the end users are ready to paint. With a user-centered approach, brain painting is continuously being adapted to the needs and requirements of the end users.

Two exhibitions of brain paintings were recently installed in 2013: one at the annual meeting "Psychologie und Gehirn" in W�rzburg, Germany, and the other in the town hall of Easdale, Scotland. Thus, brain painting is not only "brain-derived" art, but it also fosters social inclusion and increases quality of life for those who use it.


Image: The brain painting "Black Bird" was created by artist HHEM with a domestic BCI during her first exhibition in the town hall of Easdale Island, Scotland, in July 2013. In 2007, at the age of 67, HHEM was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a disease leading to the progressive loss of muscular control and the locked-in state. HHEM stated that brain painting enriches her life; it makes her free and happy.


article5Brain Chess: Making Thoughts Play

Source: Dr. Michael Tangermann

Severe motor impairments are certainly a significant physical handicap. They are also a social impediment, as paralyzed or semi-paralyzed patients often face challenges speaking. Thus, patients are unable to utilize their full cognitive abilities in social situations, such as in conversations or games. A brain-computer interface (BCI) thrives to circumvent broken motor pathways by translating brain activity directly into elicit actions. Compared to most BCI applications, which focus on supporting communication functions, the BCI-controlled chess game provides the possibility for playful social interaction between a patient and a normal chess player.

To decode the intended draw of a player, brain signals are recorded by a device, such as an electroencephalogram (EEG), while objects on the chess board are highlighted. While humans have difficulty interpreting the multidimensional and noisy signals, sophisticated machine learning algorithms can learn from examples on how to make sense of the recorded data. After a short calibration period, the machine learning algorithms grasp the data's underlying meaning and structure. Once calibrated, the BCI can decode in real time whether or not an object on the board has been attended to. After decoding visual attention toward a piece or draw, the corresponding chess move is executed.

With BCI control, the paralyzed patient is able to play this cognitively challenging game without additional support. As BCI chess can be played virtually over the internet, the handicap of the player does not even need to be revealed.

For further information, please contact Dr. Michael Tangermann or click here.


article6Interview: Prof. Dr. Niels Birbaumer - Germany's BCI Research Pioneer

Prof. Dr. Niels Birbaumer, Senior Professor and Director at the Institute of Medical Psychology and Behavioural Neurobiology at the University of T�bingen, is one of Germany's leading experts on brain-computer interface (BCI) technology.

In his interview with GCRI, he describes how his research has greatly benefited patients with brain injuries, as well as psychiatric and neurological disorders. "Our research has improved the quality of life for individuals suffering from severe chronic strokes and has enabled communication for completely paralyzed and locked-in patients," he said, further noting BCI success stories for patients with intractable epilepsy and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). More generally, this Leibniz Prize recipient also addresses the ethical decisions society faces when using brain-based communication devices. To read the full interview, click here.

Prof. Dr. Birbaumer studied psychology, statistics, and art history in 1963 at the University of Vienna. He then completed his Ph.D. from 1966 to 1969 on electroencephalography on the blind. Since 1975, he has been professor at the University of T�bingen, moving in 1993 from the Social and Behavioral Sciences faculty to the Medical faculty, where he currently leads the Institute of Medical Psychology and Behavioral Neurobiology, in addition to the Magnetoencephalography (MEG) Center.

On November 7, he will speak at the GCRI on Moving the World by Thought: Dimensions and Perspectives of Brain-Computer Interfaces.


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