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News

New computers operated by brain waves

Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft Zur Forderung Der Angewandten Forschung E.V. : 11 November, 2003  (Company News)
Do you believe in free will? That is certainly the case for numerous research groups in Europe and America working on concepts for brain-computer interfaces. These 'mind-readers' include an interdisciplinary research team in Berlin. By analyzing neural signals, computer scientists from the Fraunhofer Institute for Computer Architecture and Software Technology FIRST and neurologists from the Benjamin Franklin university clinic can determine whether a person intends to move his / her right or left hand, for example.
The electrical activity in the brain is measured by means of 128 electrodes affixed to the person's scalp, as for an electroencephalogram. But the volunteers in Berlin have no need of lengthy training sessions to learn how to control their mental processes. 'It is the job of the computer to correctly interpret the neurophysiological signals,' explains Dr. Gabriel Curio, a neuroscientist at the university clinic who, together with Professor Klaus-Robert Müller of FIRST, heads the project sponsored by the German ministry of research. The technique is based on a normal physiological phenomenon: About half a second before carrying out an action, there is a change in the neural signaling patterns. The resulting potential difference, only a few millionths of a volt in magnitude, signals the person's intention to act.

But the human brain constantly produces huge quantities of electrical signals, so how is it possible to filter out the relevant ones? The Fraunhofer experts have developed a software program capable of picking out specific signals among the nebulous mass of information. 'It's known as the cocktail party effect. In order to hold a conversation, you have to be able to distinguish a single person's voice above the general cacophony,' Müller explains. 'Our algorithms use a similar process to separate out the individual signals and assign them to different parts of the brain.' The computer's self-learning capacity allows it to identify patterns and constantly improve its performance.

There are many possible applications for this technology. For example, a sort of 'mental typewriter' that translates thoughts into cursor movements on a computer screen, allowing paralyzed patients to write texts. The same technique may one day also enable them to control a prosthetic device. Brain-computer interfaces could also spread to the entertainment industry, creating a whole new class of video games. Or they could be integrated in active car safety systems, steering or braking the vehicle in response to the driver's thoughts.
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