Germán Rodríguez, researcher at the Defense University Center associated with the Polytechnic University of Cartagena
Despite scientific advances, the functioning of the brain remains a great unknown. Although the cells that form it or the way in which it relates to the outside through the senses are known, as well as many of its functions and other data, today scientists around the world are dedicated to deciphering many of its secrets.
At the Defense University Center (CUD), associated with the Polytechnic University of Cartagena (UPCT) and located in the General Air Academy of San Javier (in Santiago de la Ribera), works Germán Rodríguez, engineer and expert in the Interface Brain Computer (BCI, acronym in English for Brain Computer Interface), of which he says: “It is an exciting field of science in which we still have much to discover and understand, and much more to imagine.”
–How do we define the Brain Computer Interface?
–There are many definitions but I find the one given by Kleber and Birmaumer in 2005 especially illustrative: «… they allow users to send messages and instructions to the outside world without using their muscles». That is, they establish an alternative communication channel to the muscular one, which is based directly on brain activity.
In a BCI system everything starts with a mental task; depending on the type of BCI system, the task changes. In those based on the imagination of movement, the task might be to imagine a hand, foot, or other part of the body moving. The communication between the neurons that make up the brain is reflected in electrical signals, so that this mental task performed causes a change in their electrical activity. In a very simplified way, we could say that, if you imagine the movement of a foot, the change that occurs in neural electrical activity will be different than if you imagine moving a hand. This activity is captured with electrodes located on the scalp, performing an electroencephalogram (EEG) in real time that is transmitted to a computer. Next, a previously trained and adjusted computer program tries to identify by means of a Pattern Recognition system what mental activity the user is performing. Finally, the user is shown what mental task the BCI system is creating. Feedback can be done by showing it on a screen, with a sound, or by associating each imagination with a command, such as, for example, turning on an air conditioner every time you imagine moving your left hand or sending a specific message if it is your right hand. It is important to note that depending on the type of BCI used, users will need more or less time to learn how to use it and the system will need more or less adjustments to function correctly.
– What applications does it currently have?
–Initially, these systems were developed and focused as a tool that allowed people with severe physical disabilities to communicate, but who maintained their intellectual capacity. That has been changing and, today, a large number of applications have been developed. In terms of communication systems, keyboards have been controlled to type, a mouse has been moved, messages have been sent in many ways, including through Twitter or Internet searches. In addition, all kinds of devices have been controlled by activating or moving them, such as drones, robots, motorized wheelchairs, and this technology has even been included for the movement control of prostheses and exoskeletons. It is also being used to achieve cognitive improvements in psychological variables such as memory, attention, processing speed or executive functions through the continuous visualization of brain waves. The interest of the video game industry in this technology is especially interesting, since it can be the actor that transfers it to the general public.
– Are there recent advances that are relevant in this field?
–A clear advance in recent years is the appearance of low-cost equipment that captures the EEG. This has allowed a greater number of researchers to join this research area and, also, that more people start using them. In addition, new methods for adjusting the system and new strategies are emerging for users to learn to operate BCI systems.
– Did this area of work experience a boom and finally has not managed to develop as expected or does it still offer great interest for science?
-After all, the brain and its functioning is still a great unknown … We still have a lot to know about the brain, but this technology is already the present, and furthermore, it is also the future. In recent years, not only the BCI, but also very related technologies such as hybrid systems, which incorporate other types of biosignals such as eye movement or some muscle signals, into the brain signal are having a great boom. Neurofeedback applications are already available from companies that offer improvements in memory or attention.
– Where is this line of investigation looking? What is to come?
–It is difficult to foresee what the future will bring us, but in the short term we will foreseeably have monitoring applications and health treatments. The use of the EEG in daily life is expected to measure attention or fatigue. We will also see games associated with these systems. In the longer term, new treatments for brain disorders will be developed that could include the use of BCI to provide improvements for epilepsy, depression, Parkinson’s disease, and schizophrenia. Work is also being done to achieve the decoding of the EEG signal that allows people with paraplegia to use exoskeletons or prostheses in an agile way.