OXFORD, Miss. – Imagine that stroke victims could use a small electronic device, controlled by their own brainwaves, to regain the ability to speak or walk. Or that epilepsy patients could use a similar device to control or even prevent seizures.
Such devices might sound like Hollywood fantasies, but psychologists, computer scientists, biomedical engineers and software engineers at the University of Mississippi’s Brain Computer Interface Laboratory are probing how brainwaves can manipulate computers and robots.
“We use robots and computers to help reinforce specific brain activity in a way that could one day be applied to increase the quality of life for a lot of people,” said Scott Gustafson, a UM clinical psychologist and one of the founding members of the BCI Research Group. “The technology is adaptive, so it could be used in a number of applications, like treating stroke victims, seizure disorders, brain injury, obsessive-compulsive disorder, just to name a few.”
BCI researchers are developing technology to use brainwaves and computers to treat brain-based disorders by rewiring the brain. Studies have shown that combining this technology with basic behavioral principles can produce long-term changes that are as effective as medication, but have no side effects and don’t require the use of drugs.
“Using brainwaves to control robots, the BCIs provide a direct communication pathway between activity in the brain and an external device,” Gustafson explained. “A person can use this feedback to gain control over the robot, and in the act gain control over some functions of their brain.”
The BCI research group formed last summer when Yixin Chen, a UM computer and information science professor, was searching for brain signal sensors to be used in a robotics course he was teaching.
“At the time, I was only interested in ‘stealing’ some of Dr. Gustafson’s sensors, so my students could work on some cool projects,” Chen said. “That was my motivation.”
After further discussions, the duo discovered many areas in which they could collaborate. A year later, BCI researchers have successfully captured brain signals using a custom-made device the size of a mobile phone that digitizes the electrical brainwaves to communicate with both a computer and a robot.
“We’re working to develop sophisticated algorithms that can be used in the design of next-generation computer interface systems,” Chen said.
Besides faculty researchers, a handful of students are also intimately involved, even down to developing the wireless robotic prototype the research group uses. Allowing students to have a hands-on role is essential because they are the future leaders in the field, said Pamela Lawhead, associate professor of computer and information sciences.
“Everyday is a new day,” said Lawhead, director of UM’s Institute for Advanced Education in Geospatial Sciences. “Students know there aren’t any answers on the table and that they must discover the answers. It’s an apprenticeship type of learning.”
Since multiple disciplines are involved, the project offers research opportunities for students across several fields of study. It includes robotics, telecommunications, psychology and neuroscience working together to delve deeper into brain functions, or what has been coined as EEG biofeedback or neurofeedback.
BCI researcher Dwight Waddell, a biomedical engineer and UM professor of exercise science, serves as a bridge for the research group, bringing years of multidisciplinary biomedical research to the table.
Waddell, who himself suffers from a nervous system disorder, has high hopes for the groundbreaking BCI research, which remains in its infancy and has only gained ground within the last decade. He envisions one day establishing remote clinical locations in poor rural areas such as the Mississippi Delta, where psychologists and clinicians aren’t always readily available or affordable.
“The chances of these people seeing a clinician now are almost zero,” Waddell said. “We want to intervene early with people who may have speech disorders or behavioral problems. We could actually do something to help.”
Three of UM’s BCI researchers plan to further their expertise as participants in the upcoming Fourth International Conference on BCI in Monterey, Calif. Although BCI is a robust field, fewer than 200 researchers from across the globe are scheduled to attend.
“It’s really exciting,” Lawhead said. “It is a ‘what if’ type of science that is simply a great deal of fun.”
For more information on the BCI Research Group, contact Scott Gustafson at 662-915-5272 or firstname.lastname@example.org.