UCLA Students Try Brain Hacking! (a Prequel)
How many times have you slumped into the perfect position on the couch right before realizing that the TV remote is just out of reach? I hope I’m not the only one who’s thought that if only I try hard enough, the remote will magically get closer to me as if I could use the Jedi force or had X-Men mutant powers. Unfortunately, I’ve always been disappointed. After all, the ability to move things with our brains has always been a fundamental aspect of science fiction, not reality.
What’s amazing is that with technological improvements and increasing research on the brain, the idea that a robot could bring me my remote if I just thought about it, or that I could control the TV myself with my own brainpower is becoming a real possibility! In fact, today, through systems known as brain computer interfaces or BCIs, people can use their brains to control drones, robots, video games, wheelchairs, prosthetic limbs, and more.
Essentially, our brain communicates information about how we understand our outside world in the form of electrical signals, fired by neurons (our brain’s nerve cells.) When many neurons fire signals at the same time, these changes in voltage can be read by electrodes, which are electrical conductors attached to the outside of a person’s head. These brain signals are strong enough to be read from the surface of our head even as they pass through various parts of the brain and the skull. However, the journey can understandably add quite a bit of noise to the data, so the electrical signals that are recorded from electrodes in the form of different frequency waves must be filtered and amplified in order to be useful. This general process is known as an electroencephalogram (EEG) and is often used to diagnose brain disorders such as epilepsy.
In medical and research settings, variations of electrodes can be implanted on the surface of the brain itself through surgery and are then able to pick up on a lot more specific information than EEGs. The monitoring of brain activity through these invasive electrodes is known as electrocorticography (ECoG).
Once this brain wave data is collected through either of these methods, the data can be analyzed by computers, and differences in wave activity when a patient is concentrating, relaxing, or thinking of moving become apparent. These changes in brain activity can then be used to trigger certain commands.
What this means, at a very basic level, is that we can now think of doing something, and a computer will be able to “read” our brain activity, analyze it, understand what we’re thinking, and do what we want it to do!
Below I’ve linked a really interesting short video that shows the great research being done at the University of Washington in regards to BCIs and how they work:
BCI systems have enormous potential applications for both the medical field and consumers. People with disabilities or who are paralyzed can use this technology to spell out words or move prosthetic limbs. Alternatively, this technology can be used to measure attentiveness when a person is driving and warn drivers when they’re becoming dangerously drowsy. Helping you meditate, dream lucidly, play games, or control robots, BCI applications are growing exponentially, and you don’t have to be an experienced researcher to make your own!
Here at UCLA, a team of curious undergraduate students from CruX are trying to build our own noninvasive BCI system. None of us have previous experience with such technology, but we’re a group of passionate students with a wide variety of interests from computer science to electrical engineering and neuroscience. This blog will chronicle our adventures in brain hacking, so if you’d like to learn more about BCIs and neurotech or build your own, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us in the comments! We’ll mainly be using materials we’ve acquired from OpenBCI to do different projects although we may also experiment with Muse headsets and other available tech.
Thanks for reading, and if you have any ideas about what our BCI should be able to do, leave a comment below!