Last year, an epilepsy patient awaiting brain surgery at the renowned Johns Hopkins Hospital occupied her time with an unusual activity. While doctors and neuroscientists clustered around, she repeatedly reached toward a video screen, which showed a small orange ball on a table. As she extended her hand, a robotic arm across the room also reached forward and grasped the actual orange ball on the actual table. In terms of robotics, this was nothing fancy. What made the accomplishment remarkable was that the woman was controlling the mechanical limb with her brain waves.
The experiment in that Baltimore hospital room demonstrated a new approach in brain-machine interfaces (BMIs), which measure electrical activity from the brain and use the signal to control something. BMIs come in many shapes and sizes, but they all work fundamentally the same way: They detect the tiny voltage changes in the brain that occur when neurons fire to trigger a thought or an action, and they translate those signals into digital information that is conveyed to the machine.
To sense what’s going on in the brain, some systems use electrodes that are simply attached to the scalp to record the electroencephalographic signal. These EEG systems record from broad swaths of the brain, and the signal is hard to decipher. Other BMIs require surgically implanted electrodes that penetrate the cerebral cortex to capture the activity of individual neurons. These invasive systems provide much clearer signals, but they are obviously warranted only in extreme situations where doctors need precise information. The patient in the hospital room that day was demonstrating a third strategy that offers a compromise between those two methods. The gear in her head provided good signal quality at a lower risk by contacting—but not penetrating—the brain tissue.