The GOOD NEWSletter #14: Brain-Machine Interfaces

A brain-computer interface (BCI), sometimes called a neural-control interface (NCI), mind-machine interface (MMI), direct neural interface (DNI), or brain-machine interface (BMI), is a direct communication pathway between an enhanced or wired brain and an external device. ~Wikipedia

EEG Biofeedback was made famous back in the mid-’70s as a way to become more self-aware and treat certain conditions. Having just started taking graduate courses in biomedical engineering, I was intrigued by this new kind of health-related tech. I read New Mind, New Body: Biofeedback, New Directions for the Mind by Barbara Brown, and even built my own EEG Biofeedback machine from plans in Popular Electronics Magazine. It was a fun party conversation starter!

The explosion of knowledge about the brain and miniaturization of electronics has spawned a brave new world of brain-machine technology that promises to help people with disabilities or even give us superpowers!

In this issue, I relay some significant advances in brain-machine interfaces (BMI) that could enable the mute to speak, quell epileptic seizures, and restore or amplify bodily functions.

Scientists Develop ‘Brain Decoder’ that Turns Brain Signals into Speech

Imagine having a stroke or other condition that disables your ability to speak.

The researchers discerned the vocal tract movements needed to produce the speech and created a “virtual vocal tract” … that could be controlled by their brain activity and produce synthesized speech. “Very few of us have any real idea, actually, of what’s going on in our mouth when we speak,” said neurosurgeon Edward Chang. “The brain translates those thoughts of what you want to say into movements of the vocal tract, and that’s what we’re trying to decode.”
Credit: UCSF Department of Neurological Surgery

Good News: Known as a ‘brain decoder,’ this technology will soon be able to read people’s minds and turn their thoughts into synthetic speech. [Click image above for demo.]


Neuroelectrics’ Starstim Treats Drug-resistant Epilepsy

In addition to detecting neurological signals, BMIs can also stimulate the brain. When paired with transcranial current stimulation (tCS), a non-invasive form of electrical neuromodulation, two-way BMI holds significant potential in the treatment of epilepsy.

Sixty million patients — approximately 1% of the population worldwide — live with epilepsy. Nearly one in three do not have their seizures well controlled by medications. Neuroelectrics’ Starstim represents a non-surgical alternative for seizure control for many of these patients.
Credit: Neuroelectrics

Good News: Neuroelectrics’ Starstim resulted in a reduction in seizure frequency of at least 40% from baseline in 75% of the patients, and no device-related adverse events were reported.


Brain-Machine Interfaces Could Give Us All Superpowers

In a new documentary, I Am Human, a blind man, a tetraplegic, and a Parkinson’s patient tell their stories about how experimental brain-machine interfaces (BMI) help restore some of their bodily functions.

[T]he second half of the film also follows a number of scientists and entrepreneurs, like Johnson, who believe that neurotechnology will soon give us all superpowers. What if, beyond just curing Stephen’s blindness, we could actually improve his eyesight so that he could see in the dark? What if a device could allow Bill not just to move his hand once again, but to type words with his mind? Could we cure depression? Could we turn a knob to make ourselves a little more empathetic?
Credit: Joel Froome / Intelligent Films

Good News: Deep-brain stimulation has been wildly successful in patients who have symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. Using special Argus glasses, some blind people can now see using a chip implanted under the eye. Some people with paraplegia can even control their limbs using a BMI that bridges their severed spinal cord.


Within the next few years, a million people may be helped by brain-computer interfaces — thanks to research funded by DARPA that started in the ‘70s.

The first real human cyborgs won’t be the techies of Silicon Valley. They’ll be people like those above, who, with a little machinery in their brains, can feel a bit more human again.

Optimistically yours,
Rod Murray