The forward march of progress is indeed a remarkable thing. Technology that seems like it should be in a science fiction movie is becoming part of our everyday reality. Take, for instance, the brain-computer interface (BCI). This device accepts signals from your brain for analysis or even action. And it gives your brain a chance to boost your rehab when your muscles need a little help. It’s an exciting technology that showed real promise in a recent study by Swiss researchers.
Brain-computer interface (BCI)
BCIs have been around since the 1980s. DARPA, the military research organization that started the Internet, conducted the first work on BCIs. Early interfaces had to be surgically implanted, but scientists have developed non-invasive ones. Non-invasive BCIs often read eye movements or brain activity as measured by an EEG, a device that reads brainwaves. Advanced computer software interprets this information and generates an appropriate response. Basically, a BCI can serve as another way for brainwaves to get somewhere they can do some good. If muscles or nerves aren’t working so well, the BCI carries the patient’s intent to a device that can help.
Scientists are developing some BCIs to become a permanent part of patients’ lives. These interfaces do things like controlling artificial limbs or helping paralyzed patients to communicate.
The scientists in this study tested a therapeutic BCI designed to help with rehabilitation only. It is not meant to become a fixture in your life. The BCIs used in this study were made up of EEG sensors held in place with specialized headgear. When patients gave the mental command to stretch a hand, the BCI would read that and help them stretch in reality.
Examining the effectiveness of BCIs in hand rehabilitation
The research focused on using a BCI in hand rehab therapy. The researchers divided a group of 27 chronic stroke patients into two groups. The patients all had moderate-to-severe issues using their hands.
The experimental group of 14 patients received therapy combining a BCI with Functional Electrical Stimulation (FES). FES is a therapy that uses electrical stimulation to exercise muscles. It is not a particularly useful therapy on its own but is sometimes effective in combination. In this study, the patient would try to extend his or her hand. When the BCI sensors detected the patient’s mind trying to move, the FES would stimulate the muscles to complete the action. This acted as both a reward for visualizing the movement correctly and helped strengthen the patients’ wrists.
One group of 13 patients believed that they were receiving a combination of BCI-FES, but only received FES. This was the sham group. They received their FES stimulation at random times, unrelated to what their brain was doing.
This was a double-blind, randomized study. Neither patients nor therapists knew which patients were in which groups. The patients received therapy twice a week for five weeks. All patients also received an hour of conventional physical therapy on each of their therapy days. The researchers tested patients before the start of the study, after the study, and six months after the end of the study.
The results showed that the patients who received BCI-FES made lasting gains in hand usage and that the sham group did not. These gains lasted for up to six months. Researchers saw an improved electrical communication between the motor areas in the brains of the BCI-FES patients and believe that this caused the improvement.
BCI is on the rise
A technology as complex as BCI takes time to mature, but it is happening. As researchers continue to explore the technology’s potential, they find more applications for it. They also find more therapies with which it can be used in combination with it, like FES. Currently, BCI related therapy is available at a handful of hospitals and research centers in the U.S. As more studies point to the positive effects, the availability will increase.
The lead author of the original study was A. Biasiucci, Center for Neuroprosthetics and Institute of Bioengineering, École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, Geneva Switzerland.