Brain-Controlled Devices Work Eerily Well

Three decades ago, William Gibson's Neuromancer showed us a future where people "jack into" computers by plugging wires into their brains. Today a new study shows that our brains may be perfectly adapted for Gibson's world.

It's almost as if our brains are hardwired to control computer devices. A group of physicists, engineers, physiologists, and neurosurgeons at University of Washington discovered that brains hooked up to computers quickly adapt, and even grow stronger. For the study, published yesterday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers tested what happened to people who learned to harness the electrical signals in their brains to control a computer cursor.

Their test subjects came from a group of patients who had electrodes attached to the surfaces of their brains in preparation for epilepsy surgery. While monitoring patterns picked up by the electrodes, researchers asked the subjects to engage in movements (like moving their arms), and then to imagine doing those same movements. Imagining the movements produced much weaker electrical signals. Then they used a brain-computer interface to feed signals from the subjects' brains into a computer, where they controlled a cursor with their thoughts.

According to a release about the study:

Next . . . the researchers looked at signals when subjects imagined performing the action and those brain signals were used to move a cursor toward a target on a computer screen. After less than 10 minutes of practice, brain signals from imagined movement became significantly stronger than when actually performing the physical motion.

After less than 10 minutes of training, two of the subjects also reported they no longer had to imagine moving the body part and could just think about moving the cursor.

Connecting your brain to a computer can boost its electrical signals beyond typical levels.

Physics and neuroscience researcher Kai Miller, lead author of the study, said:

Bodybuilders get muscles that are larger than normal by lifting weights. We get brain activity that's larger than normal by interacting with brain-computer interfaces. By using these interfaces, patients create super-active populations of brain cells.

Of course it remains to be seen whether "super-active populations of brain cells" actually improve the functioning of your brain, or just make it surprisingly interoperable with your laptop.

If you're hoping for a future where you jack into cyberspace, the good news is that your brain adapts very quickly to its new status as a device in a computer network. The bad news is that you have to stick a bunch of electrodes into your brain to make it happen. Miller's next research move will be to explore less-invasive ways to network your brain with other devices. He's also going to work on refining the ways those "super-active" brain cells control computers using high-frequency signals.

via Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences [PDF]