Brain-computer interfaces may give non-verbal people a voice

A neuroscience team from University of Western Ontario is using similar technology to that used at NASA to identify communication patterns in the brain.

Jordan Heuvelmans 2 minute read March 1, 2020

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Scientists at the University of Western Ontario are using brain-computer research technology to get answers directly from people who can’t answer for themselves.

In a study published in the journal Frontiers in Neuroscience, Adrian Owen, a neuroscientist and professor of cognitive neuroscience and imaging at the University of Western Ontario, is using brain-computer interfaces to communicate with people who are otherwise non-verbal.

“Brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) are becoming increasingly popular as a tool to improve the quality of life of patients with disabilities,” writes Owen.

BCIs are devices that help the brain communicate with external devices that essentially ‘speak’ for the patient. The UWO team focused on using what they called functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS), a non-invasive method that measures changes near infrared light. It processes signals that indicate the hemodynamic response or increase blood levels to the brain.

Similar technology already exists for astronauts at NASA to understand what’s going on in their brains, but when they are conscious.

The fNIRS are used to determine brain activity on a digital screen. Portons (particles of light) cause the screen to light up whenever there are changes in blood oxygenation. In addition to the BCIs, the team used real-time resolved (TR) detection to record each time the screen lights up. This enables the researchers to learn what goes on deeper in the brain.

To determine whether they’d be able to communicate with patients, researchers asked participants a number of ‘yes’ and ‘no’ questions. The participants were told to imagine playing tennis as a ‘yes’ and to stay relaxed as a ‘no.’They found that for positive answers, the section of the brain that responds to movement lit up on the digital screen.

While there is still a ways to go to determine whether or not patients were definitively providing affirmative responses, Owen acknowledged that the results highlight the potential for using technology to help non-verbal patients regain their voice.