The Power to Control Objects With Our Minds

April 27, 2016

The recent announcement that a young paralyzed man in Ohio in the United States named Ian Burkhart managed to regain the use of his fingers after having a chip implanted in his brain is an exciting step forward for science and healthcare. In fact, you may now be wondering how long it will be before we can unlock a door, turn on a kettle, or even send an email simply by thinking about it?

The Ohio breakthrough used a technique called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to identify the pattern of electrical impulses in the part of the brain that controls movement—the motor cortex—that was generated when Burkhart thought about using his fingers. The system learned to recognize this pattern when it appeared in his brain, and then instruct receivers to stimulate his arm muscles to make the appropriate movements.

This might produce life-changing results for people with disabilities, but it has limited potential outside the body. It is about sending movement instructions to parts of the body that cannot be reached in the usual way. We might be able to use it to make a robot reproduce our movements, but that may be the limit.

Having said that, we have already discovered ways of manipulating foreign objects. Three years ago, I demonstrated a modified Scalextric set at the Lancashire Science Festival that enabled people to make the cars go faster round the track simply by concentrating harder on them. Hundreds of people were able to try this using a Bluetooth headset called the Neurosky Mindwave, connected to nothing more than a laptop and a simple microcontroller.

The technology behind this shift from the telekinesis of sci-fi movies or comic books into the real world is electroencephalography, or EEG. This monitors the brain’s electrical activity using electrodes placed on the scalp. The data is then processed to see the underlying frequencies in these impulses, which are associated with different kinds of brain activities. The alpha frequency band is associated with wakeful relaxation with closed eyes, for example, while the beta frequency is associated with normal waking consciousness.

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