Hey everybody! So at this week’s meeting we talked about BrainCo, a company that is using EEG to monitor and assess student engagement and attention in classrooms. Although the technology and research behind how BrainCo’s FocusEdu+ headband works is relatively scare, we had a really good discussion about the ethics and weak points of their product. Specific
points that I found interesting was the critique of how exactly you would even measure attention, and whether it is possible to alter brain waves in people, which are the main two points I will be breaking down in this week’s blog post.
Can you even measure/quantify attention?
EEG is actually a really popular tool, especially in the field of educational research, to study student engagement in classroom settings. So what EEG signals are we looking for exactly when we gauge attention, and how effective is this strategy?
The whole goal with EEG is to more precisely observe if students are actually alert during class, because a teacher simply viewing students might be biased / incorrect in their judgements of who is paying attention or not. However, the drawbacks of EEG are that the signal can be affected by artifacts such as muscle movement, blinks, etc.
Also, students could be paying attention to something other than the teacher, and the EEG would not be able to discriminate that. Lastly, EEG signals are hard to interpret unless you know how to understand the signals and what you are looking at in terms of brain wave frequencies and power. Also, while EEG nets are cheaper than some other neuroimaging equipment, they are still expensive regardless, so whether or not schools would have the funding for something like the FocusEdu+ headband is a point of contention.
When gauging student attention, the main region of the brain to monitor for LFPs is the frontal lobe, which is associated with higher thinking. In terms of brain waves / frequencies, beta waves are the most prevalent when someone is alert and processing sensory stimuli. Therefore, these waves will be important to study to quantify student attention and engagement. Also, during these times of focus, alpha waves should be diminished, since these waves are associated with being at rest and relaxed. The table below summarizes the different types of EEG signals and there physical meaning:
Can you alter people’s brain waves?
As mentioned during meeting, altering neural circuitry and connectivity, such as via products like Halo Neuroscience, has a natural by-product of simultaneously altering the frequencies of brain waves you produce and how often / to what intensity you produce them (i.e. "power"). Local Field Potentials (LFP) are electrophysiological signals that show up in recordings of brain waves; they are the result of nearby neurons producing sums of electrical currents. There is currently no reliable ways to alter these LFP waves. This is because oftentimes electrical stimulation of the brain may not affect the power of the brain wave frequency actually being targeted, or it may not reliably affect the timing of these targeted oscillations; in other words, these characteristics of neural oscillations (power / origin and timing) are hard to predict.
However, one interesting study I found that is relatively new was conducted by Dr. Alik S. Widge, and he found that closed loop neurostimulation could be used to increase alpha waves in rhesus monkeys. This could be really beneficial as a use of treatment for neuropsychiatric and neurodevelopmental disorders that involve abnormal neural oscillations. The main advantage of closed loop neurostimulation is that it is more responsive to a person's needs than open loop neurostimulation: closed-loop neurostimulation can adapt electrical stimulation therapy in response to the subject’s physiological changes, whereas open-loop neurostimulation provides electrical stimulation based on pre-set conditions. Thus, closed-loop neurostimulation, though very hard to produce as a technological product, has been shown in this study to be able to more effectively alter brain waves directly, because it can better detect the timing and power of certain LFPs.
Otherwise, though, most of BCI is focused on decoding brain waves, and using the information and processes associated with certain brain waves in order to control outer technological devices (rather than directly altering brain waves, though it is definitely possible). For example, BCI targeted at people with paralysis allows them to move a computer cursor by simply thinking about moving the cursor; the BCI essentially decodes and translates the brain waves they generate in order to produce that specific outcome and allow them to type sentences to communicate. On a scarier note, in 2015, the US Army’s MIND Lab found a way to use BCI to determine the target image the soldier was thinking about by analyzing and translating their brain waves, which could be used to control military weapons with one's mind (link to full article: https://www.army.mil/article/158256/armys_mind_lab_able_to_decode_brain_waves). Therefore, more work is being done on collecting, analyzing, and decoding brain waves rather than altering them; this is mainly because neurotechnology is so new that we must use it to first understand how the brain works, before we try to figure out how to modify it. However, this field does exist, and it is called neuromodulation (which I am thinking about writing a more in-depth blog post on in the near future… so stay tuned). Techniques of neuromodulation, including Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS), are used to apply a targeted electrical or chemical stimulus to the brain in order to alter neuronal activity and thus normalize neural functioning. This is particularly important for people with conditions such as Parkinson’s Disease, depression, and so much more.
That's it for this week's recap! Let me know if you have any suggestions for topics for future blog posts, as well as if you want to write your own blog post. Lastly, if you want to stay on top of neurotechnology news and join a larger community of neurotech enthusiasts, I recommend joining NeuroTechX's slack group chat (link to sign up: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSfZyzhVdOLU8_oQ4NylHL8EFoKLIVmryGXA4u7HDsZpkTryvg/viewform). Don't forget our next BCI workshop is Monday, May 6th, at 6 pm in Boelter Hall 5420!