In a YouTube video released recently by the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW-Madison), researcher Adam Wilson sat before a computer, wearing a skullcap covered in electrodes, and posted a status update on Twitter — just by thinking about it. So far, the breakthrough is confined to Twittering. Even so, the so-called “Brain-Twitter Interface” stands out for its ergonomics potential as enabling technology.
Friends, family and co–workers use the social networking site Twitter to communicate and stay connected through the exchange of quick, frequent answers to one simple question: What are you doing?
Just 23 characters long, his message, "using EEG to send tweet," demonstrated a natural, manageable way in which "locked-in" patients can couple brain-computer interface technologies with modern communication tools, according to the university news release about the successful test.
A UW-Madison biomedical engineering doctoral student, Wilson is among a growing group of researchers worldwide who aim to perfect a communication system for users whose bodies do not work, but whose brains function normally. Among those are people who have amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), brain-stem stroke or high spinal cord injury.
In collaboration with research scientist Gerwin Schalk and colleagues at the Wadsworth Center in Albany, NY, Williams and Wilson began developing a simple communication interface based on brain activity related to changes in an object on screen.
The interface consists, essentially, of a keyboard displayed on a computer screen. "The way this works is that all the letters come up, and each one of them flashes individually," says Justin Williams, the UW-Madison assistant professor of biomedical engineering who is Wilson's Ph.D. adviser. "And what your brain does is, if you're looking at the 'R' on the screen and all the other letters are flashing, nothing happens. But when the 'R' flashes, your brain says, 'Hey, wait a minute. Something's different about what I was just paying attention to.' And you see a momentary change in brain activity."
Wilson, who used the interface to post the Twitter update, likens it to texting on a cell phone. "You have to press a button four times to get the character you want," he says of texting. "So this is kind of a slow process at first." However, as with texting, users improve as they practice using the interface. "I've seen people do up to eight characters per minute," says Wilson.
While widespread implementation of brain-computer interface technologies is still years down the road. Williams hopes the Twitter application is the nudge researchers need to refine development of the in-home technology. "This is one of the first examples where we've found something that would be immediately useful to a much larger community of people with neurological deficits," he explained.
Twitter has been called a "micro-blogging" tool. User updates, called tweets, have a 140-character limit — a manageable message length that fits locked-in users' capabilities, says Williams.
Tweets are displayed on the user's profile page and delivered to other Twitter users who have signed up to receive them. "So someone could simply tell family and friends how they're feeling today," says Williams. "People at the other end can be following their thread and never know that the person is disabled. That would really be an enabling type of communication means for those people, and I think it would make them feel, in the online world, that they're not that much different from everybody else. That's why we did these things. ... When we talk to people who have locked-in syndrome or a spinal-cord injury, their No. 1 concern is communication.”
Source: University of Wisconsin-Madison