Moving the World by Thought: Dimensions and Perspectives of Brain-Computer Interfaces
• German Research Foundation (DFG)
• German Center for Research and Innovation (GCRI)
“Moving the world by thought” was once a metaphor for influential political and philosophical minds whose ideas changed the world, which Busso von Alvensleben, Consul General of the Federal Republic of Germany in New York, noted during his welcome remarks. While brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) may not allow people these days to “move the world,” they do at least enable them to control certain devices, such as robots or prostheses, with their thoughts.
The first event speaker, Prof. Dr. Niels Birbaumer from the University of Tübingen, is one of the world’s leading BCI researchers. He is also a recipient of the prestigious Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Prize, the highest German research award, which currently allocates 2.5 million euros of prize funding towards further research, as event moderator Dr. Eva-Maria Streier, Director of the German Research Foundation in North America, explained.
The basic idea behind BCI is to record brain activity either invasively or non-invasively via EEG technology and to use this data to understand the bases of our thoughts, which are neuro-electronic processes. According to Prof. Dr. Birbaumer, it is “astonishingly simple to translate the thought ‘I want to eat this’ into a movement” because the activity of only 32 brain cells must be tracked in order to have a monkey move an artificial arm to feed itself. Stroke patients suffering from partial paralysis can also benefit from similar training of neuroprosthetic devices. Unfortunately, this training currently takes hours and does not address the challenges encountered in a patient’s life outside of the lab, where extensive physical therapy is still required to help the patient regain movement of his or her limbs.
Swiss philosopher Ludwig Hohl once stated that a human being lives according to his communication capacities. Based on this statement, losing the ability to communicate would mean losing life. In a similar vein, scientists try to enable so-called “locked-in” patients, whose body muscles are completely paralyzed, but who still have a rather intact brain, to communicate again through BCI. This communication is established on the basis of reflexive non-conscious answers, where the patient’s initial reactions to yes-no questions are recorded. This method is accurate approximately 80 percent of the time. Thanks to this tactic, scientists have discovered that these “locked-in” patients perceive their quality of life as surprisingly good, in fact better than what the average healthy population reports. This satisfaction rate can likely be attributed to the stress-free environment in which these people live, sheltered from the nuisances and concerns of everyday life.
BCI can also help individuals with mental disorders, such as social phobia or psychopathic behavior. With BCI and magnetic resonance recordings, scientists can train mentally ill patients to reactivate or deactivate certain brain areas responsible for their disorders. At the moment, this very expensive treatment only works within in the lab, but it may one day be available for everyday use.
Dr. Leonardo G. Cohen, Chief of the Human Cortical Physiology and Neurorehabilitation Section of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke at the National Institutes of Health, shed light on the status of international science collaboration, which is vital for interdisciplinary research fields like BCI. In Dr. Cohen’s view, successful long-term international collaborations are still the exception. One reason for this may be that funding prevalent in the U.S. promotes targeted and focused forms of research, whereas funding in Germany allows research to ensue for many years without the requirement of publishing. This diminished pressure to publish can be especially helpful in fields like neuroscience where some patients need to be studied for extremely long periods of time before conclusive results can be attained. Scientists like Prof. Dr. Birbaumer, however, prove that bilateral cooperation is nevertheless possible and may pave the way to further technological advances in the future.