In the not-too-distant future, we could be communicating with our computers — and each other — using only our thoughts.
Scientists are already working on technology that connects the brain to electronic gadgets and two new devices unveiled this week could help usher in a future without keyboards: a wireless brainwave headset and a brain sensor that dissolves in the body after completing its job.
At the University of California San Diego, bioengineering professor Gert Cauwenberghs and his team came up with an easy way to monitor the brain. They have built the first portable, 64-channel wearable brain activity monitoring system that’s comparable to state-of-the-art equipment found in research laboratories.
Cauwenberghs says the idea is to allow scientists and doctors to check brain function or activity without implanting electrodes.
“There has been much progress in brain stimulation, but it’s very invasive,” he said. With our device, you just place it on your head.”
Cauwenberghs says the team has come up with two devices: a high-resolution 64-channel EEG monitor for research and clinical settings that attaches to the patient’s skin, and a 20-channel device that is designed for quick readings -- to check for brain damage from a concussion or stroke, for example, when time is important.
This lower-resolution device is easier to put on but can still read brainwaves just by attacking to the hair.
The device was described in a study published in IEEE Transactions on Biomedical Engineering.
The group behind the wireless EEG monitor says their neuroimaging systems could someday work with mobile sensors and smartphones to track brain states throughout the day, perhaps even boost the brain’s capabilities.
“This is going to take neuroimaging to the next level by deploying on a much larger scale,” said Mike Yu Chi, a UCSD Jacobs School alumnus and chief technology officer of the startup firm Cognionics who led the team that developed the headset used in the study. “You will be able to work in subjects’ homes. You can put this on someone driving.”
University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
A separate group at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, has come up with another wireless brain monitoring strategy. They developed a device inside the brain that can record brain temperature and pressure for days or weeks and then dissolve harmlessly when its job is finished.
John Rogers, professor of materials science and engineering, and colleagues built this dissolvable sensor to eliminate implantable electronic devices and wires that sometimes cause infections after surgery.
“They often require a secondary surgery for their extraction,” Rogers said. “That opens up additional risk for the patient.”
So Rogers and his team came up with silicon-based brain sensors that can completely dissolve into the cerebrospinal fluid within a few weeks after implantation. The sensor transmits data to a second small electronic device that sits just outside the brain, but beneath the skin of the patient. That secondary device then sends the brain data to a nearby computer.
The group's research – conducted on rats - appears this week in the journal Nature.
Rogers believes that a dissolvable electronic sensor that can be used in the brain or another internal organ -- could also one day also be used in our homes or offices.
As our electronic devices become more connected to each other, the number of tiny sensors in appliances, buildings and machines has increased exponentially. Maybe its time for a "bio-degradable" sensor that can be recycled, reused or broken down into its component parts.
“If you could design sensors out of materials that are environmentally friendly that would be a nice thing,” Rogers said. “It would eliminate all the issues of toxic waste disposal and in this world of pervasive electronics, body mounted or machines, this concept could be useful.”