Device linking brain, computer, and body offers solutions for patients with limited mobility

A new device for recording brain activity has been developed by scientists at Skoltech, South Ural State University, with help from researchers at other institutions. While smaller and more affordable than existing options, this novel device retains a high-quality signal and customizable configuration. Scientists hope that utilization of the device may be able to offer regained limb control for individuals with limited mobility and warning before a seizure for epilepsy patients.

Assessing the extent and severity of brain injuries can be difficult without the proper tools to measure brain activity. In a scientific context, devices measuring brain activity are needed for application in research on sleep, decision-making, memory, attention, and more. However, these devices are also needed for engineers developing tools that may one day be able to translate brain signals into commands performed by an implanted or external device. This could give patients back the freedom to move parts of their body that have lost their functioning, perhaps even allowing paralyzed individuals to perform tasks independently.

Electroencephalographers are a kind of device that uses small electrodes placed on the scalp to read electrical activity inside the brain. While often very large and expensive, these devices are the existing option for collecting recorded brain signals for use in research and diagnostics. Electroencephalographers have limited electrodes, meaning signal quality is only moderate. More widely available devices for those looking for a gadget or “toy” can be found for a lesser cost, but they carry an even poorer signal quality.

Recent research has sought to find a solution that addresses these problems.

Scientists from South Ural State University, North Carolina State University, and Brainflow worked with electronic research engineer Ildar Rakhmatulin and Skoltech neuroscientist Professor Mikhail Lebedev to develop a new device. Currently, available analog devices cost $1,000 or more, while the device built by researchers can be made with just $350. It is also higher in electrode count by 24 or more, with improved research-grade signal quality. The compact processing unit — about half a centimeter in diameter and weighing approximately 150 grams — can be worn during the day or overnight.

Instructions for building the device have been made openly available by researchers via GitHub in the hopes that their creation will draw more interest in the development of brain-computer interfaces. With more attention focused on advancements in the field, researchers believe there will be more support for future cognitive research and rehabilitation system development.

“The more convenient and affordable such devices become, the more chances there are this would drive the home lab movement, with some of the research on brain-computer interfaces migrating from large science centers to small-scale amateur projects,” Lebedev says in a statement.

An increase in smaller research operations, Lebevev added, could result in progress toward devices that could restore mobility for stroke patients, paralyzed individuals, and people with other kinds of loss of mobility.

“We could see people with limited mobility using do-it-yourself interfaces to train, say, a smartphone-based system that would electrically stimulate a biceps to flex the arm at the elbow,” says Lebedev. “That works on someone who has lost control over their arm due to spinal cord trauma or a stroke, where the commands are still generated in the brain — they just don’t reach the limb, and that’s where our little brain-computer interfacing comes in.”

Researchers believe that the development of these interfaces may be able to detect brain activity that indicates an approaching seizure in epilepsy patients. Forewarning would allow patients the time to prepare by getting to a safe space and comfortable position, or perhaps use electrical stimulation to avoid the seizure altogether.

This study is published in Experimental Brain Research.

Article written by Anna Landry

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