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Brain-computer interfaces: sci-fi today, better lives tomorrow

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New technologies have a huge positive impact on human lives. Already today, mechanical limbs connected to the nervous system and exoskeletons – innovative devices that impaired people wear in order to support their mobility and dexterity – can enhance physical performance and help by-pass disability. BNCIs (brain-neural computer interfaces) help people with severe disabilities regain control over everyday life; participate in society, and work. This is why we support new technologies. And we will keep on doing it.

Brain-computer interfaces (BCI) or brain-neural computer interfaces (BNCI) are technologies used in successful science-fiction movies in the past. Today, they are helping people with disabilities in hospitals or at home perform every-day tasks.

Here are some concrete examples of what BNCIs can do for people.

Developing a practical generation of BNCI for home use

As a ground-breaking technology, BNCI systems have been developed almost exclusively in laboratories. But people's lives happen in their homes. That is why BNCI research and implementation had to adapt and migrate, thus offering new options for communication and control, increasing independence and reducing social exclusion. The BackHome project was aimed precisely at moving BNCIs from being laboratory devices tested by healthy users to becoming practical systems used at home by people with severely limited mobility or cognitive impairment.

BackHome raises hope for people with diverse disabilities: quadriplegics or hemiplegics; people affected by speech disorders or by cognitive functional diversity, such as Alzheimer or Parkinson diseases; people with dementia; minimum res­ponse people or locked-in persons. It provides easy-to-use services tailored for one-click command. It has a telemonitoring and home support system to allow and assist BNCI home use. It also has a Web-based application offering remote services for medical professionals to plan and monitor BNCI-based cognitive rehabilitation. The project has even helped patients brain paint at home: patients in locked-in state can paint without any muscular activity, solely by having their brain signals processed.

Creating and successfully testing mind-controlled robotic prostheses

More than half of people with spinal cord injuries are suffering from impairments of both hands. Researchers in MoreGrasp project aim at developing a user interface for individuals with spinal cord injury, to support everyday activities, such as cooking. Combining BNCIand neuroprostheses, this interface activates the arm muscles with electrical currents, thus allowing patients to grasp objects. eNHANCE project is working on enhancing and training arm motor function during daily life, thus helping people with a stroke or Duchenne muscular distrophy. It uses a smart arm and hand support, such as gaze detection, to automatically follow the patient's intention and move arms to reach out for a glass or to play cards.

Amputees and patients with hand dysfunctions can, not only use, but also evaluate BNCI-based interfaces and systems developed within the WAY project. The project tries to restore a physiological bidirectional link between a Hand Assistive Device (HAD) and a patient and thus improve patient’s autonomy and quality of life. This link will be achieved by means of a hardware/software architecture based on (a) a network of different wearable distributed interfaces working in synergy, orchestrated by an (b) adaptive controller that interprets and fuses bio-signals and hand sensor signals exchanging therefore action and perception information between the HAD and the patient.

Did you say avatar? Not the movie, but science-fiction becoming reality

Imagine mentally sending your avatar (a robot) explore a remote place, while you're still sitting in front of your computer. You simply operate your avatar by thinking where you want it to go, and seeing what the avatar sees, you experience this place without physically being there. This will soon become possible thanks to VERE embodiment technologies.

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Via a BNCI, the sensor system (a cap with sensors that you wear on your head) detects your brain activity and transmits your brain signals via the internet to the avatar, which then acts according to your orders. For a full embodiment experience, the person is also equipped with special glasses transmitting in real-time the images captured by the avatar video, so as to see what the avatar can see in its surroundings. This technique could help disabled patients by restoring some of their functions: they will be able to move humanoid robots or only parts of them (e.g. arms) via a BNCI, and use the avatar to perform everyday works for them.

The way forward in the future use of BNCI

BNCI Horizon 2020 project fosters collaboration and communication in brain-computer interfaces among stakeholders (including research groups, businesses, end users, policy makers, and the general public). It created a clear and concise roadmap, consolidating recent results in BNCI research and investigating new BNCIactivities and synergies with relevant fields. Potential new applications to improve the functions of people with motor, sensory, cognitive and mental disabilities as well as of healthy people are also explored.

Our efforts to promote BNCI will go on: on 8 December 2016 we plan to open a new call (ICT23 2017) on interfaces for accessibility, with a budget of 10 MEUR to build on BNCI achievement so far.

From research lab to application EU invests in #BNCI to improve quality of life for millions of people.
Roberto Viola's picture
Published in DSM blog