It sounds like something from a science fiction novel: cutting edge technology that allows people to control objects with their minds.
But there’s nothing futuristic about this technology.
At the brain-computer interface lab run by Albany Medical Center and the state Department of Health’s Wadsworth Center, patients are trained to control a device such as a keypad simply by thinking about what they want to do.
A similar lab, modeled on the Albany Med/Wadsworth lab, will soon open in southern Italy, with researchers from both institutions overseeing its development using a $3.7 million grant from the European Union.
BCI technology facilitates direct communication with a device, such as a computer.
“Through the direct interaction between the brain and the computer, you can learn what somebody is intending to communicate, what they are intending to do,” said Gerwin Schalk, a senior research scientist at the Wadsworth Center. “Brain computer interface has a lot of potential.”
The research at the BCI lab at Albany Medical/Wadsworth began with epilepsy patients.
As director of the Epilepsy and Human Brain Mapping Program at Albany Medical Center, Ritaccio treats people with drug-resistant epilepsy. During surgery, and with their consent, he places electrodes on the surface of his patients’ brains and records the electrical signals coming from the cerebral cortex. These signals are transmitted to a computer, which uses complex software and algorithms to translate them into simple tasks, such as spelling words on a computer and operating a computer-controlled hand.
“We’ve been using patented software to decode certain types of brain activity and translate it into specific actions,” Ritaccio said.
BCI technology has the potential to help people who lack movement — such as stroke patients or those with severe spinal cord injuries — to communicate and use prosthetic devices, Ritaccio said.
Ritaccio said that once the electrodes are implanted, researchers can see which clusters of brain cells are involved in carrying out certain activities, such as reading or solving puzzles, and which clusters are involved in planning those activities.
One of the things Ritaccio’s patients can do is look at a screen with flashing letters and acknowledge which letter they need to spell a particular word when it appears on the screen. This acknowledgement is not physical; the patient simply thinks about the letter.
“They’re just looking at a screen with their hands folded in front of them,” Ritaccio said.
The BCI software used at the Albany Med/Wadsworth lab was developed by Schalk, who is Ritaccio’s collaborator.
BCI is an expanding area of research.
“Five years ago, BCI hardly existed at all,” Ritaccio said. “We are in an unusual situation where the technology is expanding very rapidly.”
Schalk said BCI has been around since the 1970s, when researchers were able to teach monkeys to control devices using their brains, but really began to take off in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
“There was an increase in activity and an increase in interest,” Schalk said.
The new laboratory will be located at the Neuromed Institute in Molise, an academic medical center specializing in neuroscience. Other collaborators include the Sapienza University of Rome.
News of the collaboration was announced at a press conference held in a restored 15th century church in Avellino, Italy, on June 15.