Brain-computer interfaces make the Kinect look like Atari

While some neuroscience news requires a little imagination to get excited about, this tidbit about a device that allowed a paralyzed person to control a figure onscreen and exert control over a physical robot arm is immediately awesome. Really, a more in-depth explanation of the tech behind the world’s most exciting high-five, the process behind the research is utterly fascinating.

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With brain-computer interface (BCI) technology, the thoughts of Tim Hemmes, who sustained a spinal cord injury that left him unable to move his body below the shoulders, were interpreted by computer algorithms and translated into intended movement of a computer cursor and, later, a robot arm, explained lead investigator Wei Wang, Ph.D., assistant professor, Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, Pitt School of Medicine.

And here’s the juicy part about how it actually works:

Six weeks before the implantation surgery, the team conducted functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) of Mr. Hemmes’ brain while he watched videos of arm movement. They used that information to place a postage stamp-size electrocortigraphy (ECoG) grid of 28 recording electrodes on the surface of the brain region that fMRI showed controlled right arm and hand movement. Wires from the device were tunneled under the skin of his neck to emerge from his chest where they could be connected to computer cables as necessary.

For 12 days at his home and nine days in the research lab, Mr. Hemmes began the testing protocol by watching a virtual arm move, which triggered neural signals that were sensed by the electrodes. Distinct signal patterns for particular observed movements were used to guide the up and down motion of a ball on a computer screen. Soon after mastering movement of the ball in two dimensions, namely up/down and right/left, he was able to also move it in/out with accuracy on a 3-dimensional display.

This is literal brain hacking, and it’s possible with current tech. Deus Ex, eat your heart out!

While there are, you know, medical implications – and those are probably a bit more important (allowing paralyzed people to move and interact with the physical world chief among them), there are also incredible implications for the future of gaming.

Imagine multiplayer matches that rely entirely upon opponent’s speed of thought (no need for pesky motor neurons and muscle reflexes getting in the way), or games that can read a player’s emotional state, altering gameplay parameters on the fly (Incredible Hulk style). Game designers have been “hacking” players’ brains all along (operant conditioning, anyone?) – but these tools could offer new meaning to the phrase.