For ten long years, Scott Routley had been lost. Sure, his family could visit him every day, hold his hand and see his face, but, being in a vegetative state, they were no more aware of each other, than if they had been on distant planets. Or so medical science has believed. But, according to the BBC, on November 12th, 2012, something extraordinary happened. Using brain-computer interface technology, Scott’s doctor was able to ask him questions, and receive coherent answers. Using a combination of techniques, Professor Adrian Owen was able to ask Mr. Routley if he was in pain, and Scott said no. Just like that, one of the most troubling moral questions a family can encounter- that of whether their father, mother, son or daughter is suffering while in a coma, and whether it might be kinder to let them go- was answered. Now, Scott’s case doesn’t provide the answer for other all the other families suffering like his, but it provides insight into one of the most exciting fields of medical technology; Brain-Computer Interface, or BCI.
Brain Computer Interfacing is an idea that’s floated around science fiction for decades, serious experiments for years, and medical science only recently, but is still in its earliest stages. So today, we’ll be examining this young technology, by looking first at where it stands today, then its uses in the medical field, and finally, both some exciting and worrying implications. Before talking about the medical applications, and then the future of the science, it’s important to look at Brain Computer Interfacing as a whole. We can do this in two ways, we can look at the history of the study, and then current practices in the field. Like most of modern technology, Brain Computer Interfacing has its roots in the work of Nikola Tesla, who discovered that you could detect the frequency of electronic waves Then, in 1924 Hans Berger used this discovery to measure how electricity and fluids moved in the brain, this according to an April 2012 article published in the Review of Medical Physiology. But it wasn’t until 1992 that we started linking computers with brain activity in a relevant way, called an fMRI, which stands for Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging. Doctors use magnets to look at where the blood is in your brain when given a certain task.
The computer interface than reads this information and extrapolates data from it. Then in the early 2000s, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information in September of this year, the idea was expanded to EEG technology, which is more cheaper and easier to obtain. Instead of looking at the blood flow of your brain, an EEG actually measures the electricity flowing through it. An fMRI requires a large apparatus and you have to lie still during the duration, whereas you can get EEG technology with a helmet, or headband. So we see that the history of Brain Computer Interfaces have deep roots in medicine and engineering, we can now look at how researchers and doctors are using these tools today. According to Digital Trends online magazine on October 1st of 2012, the basis of modern BCI technology is pattern recognition theory, which is a branch of computer science. It boils down to teaching machines to recognize that a particular pattern of brain activity means a certain thing. So the information gathered from the aforementioned EEG gets fed to a computer.
The computer reads the information, and if it matches a patterns, executes whatever it is the pattern is supposed to mean. Even though the technology is very young, we can already do some damn cool things with it; the Human Media Interaction Group, based in various universities in the Netherlands, has already made games controlled completely by players’ minds. Businessweek of October 22 2012 says that the important advancements now are in making the technology more user friendly and affordable. So we see that Brain Computer Interface technology has a long history, culminating in portable, affordable technologies, and see that these technologies are being combined in new ways to bring about some fascinating advancements, now we can look at those advancements in the context of the medical world, before looking at the implications of that technology.
The brain is the hardest part of the human body for doctors to treat. Medical BCI technology, therefor, is one of the most important advancements in medical science since the discovery that leeches didn’t actually do anything beneficial. There are two primary ways doctors use medical Brain Computer Interfaces to help patients- to treat those suffering from paralysis, and an emerging movement to treat mental disorders. The earliest and most obviously successful way that doctors have employed BCI is to try and beat paralysis. Paralysis is the loss of conscious control of muscles in any part of the body caused by an interruption of the flow of information from the brain to the muscle. Reeve Foundation’s Campaign to Cure Paralysis reported on July 21st of 2012, 5.3 million Americans are paralyzed. According to John Hopkins Research Hospital in February of 2012, it’s still impossible to repair breaks in the nervous system. But now, doctors are using medical BCI to bypass the nervous system, instead of repairing it. The nervous system functions in much the same way as Brain Computer Interface; it sends signals from your brain to other places, to make things happen.
The National Institute of Health reported, in May of 2012, that the process of bypassing the nervous system entirely has been surprisingly successful. Two people, an unnamed man and woman, who had both been paralyzed for more than a decade are now able to control artificial prosthetics almost perfectly in lab conditions. It’s almost a total cure for paralysis. Doctors hope to soon give people back their own limbs, instead of replacing them with artificial ones. But even with the frightening numbers, paralysis only affects about 1 percent of Americans. Researchers are now using BCI Technology to treat psychological disorders, which the National Institute of Mental Health said, on November 16th of 2012, affects 25% of American adults, and 20% of American children. According to the Public Library of Science on July 2nd of 2012, 20 ADHD positive children were treated with a therapeutic “game” that was entirely based on Brain Computer Interface.
Because it actually required the children to focus on a chemical and physical level, it lead to a permanent reduction in ADHD symptoms, without any of the harmful side effects of ADHD medication. Efforts are underway to make similar headway against depression, clinical anxiety, bipolar disorder, bulimia and anorexia. So we see that Brain Computer Interface Technology has already benefitted the medical community, improving dozens of lives, and is on its way to being one of the most critical medical technologies in history. Now we can look at the implications of this field of medicine. As with any advancement, there are both exciting and troubling implications of this emerging branch of science. It’s encouraging to think of a future in which paralysis, comatoseness, and other ailments which cut the body off from the brain, but scientists are considering taking that process even further. Raymond Kurzweil of the 2045 Initiative said on July 30th, 2012, that the obvious next step, after letting the brain control part of a body, is to create an artificial body controlled entirely by brains.
Less exciting but more plausible is the amount of information Brain Computer Interface would give researchers. According to the November 18th Huffington Post, even simple things like sleep are a closed book to neuroscientists. But BCI technology has already led to breakthroughs that have helped people, such as Nicole Delian, who suffered from Klein Levin Syndrome, which forced her to sleep for forty eight out of sixty four days. So we can see that Medical BCI technology has encouraging implications, in both a research capacity and even helping bring human immortality a step closer. However, there are also some frightening aspects of this developing science. In the first place, it’s a pretty disconcerting thought that everything our brains can be read by machines and turned into data. In the Guardian of June 29th, 2012, scientists argue against BCI technology, because they say that there isn’t a good framework for dealing with the ethical and philosophical concerns of knowing everything about the brain.
One expert even went so far as to compare the effects to the classic dystopian novel by Aldous Huxley, Brave New World, set in a time when all conflict is managed with chemicals and electricity. A less frightening, but more pragmatic issue is that of privacy. Computerworld Online Magazine on August 27th, 2012, raises the troubling question of what happens when every time you go to the doctor, get arrested, apply for insurance, apply for a job, or go to the airport, someone scans your brain to make sure you’re not a supervillain. The inside of your skull is supposed to be the one place where it’s impossible for you to sacrifice privacy, and yet pursuing this line of research might lead to even that line being crossed. So we see that Brain Computer Interface’s medical future is a fascinating one, with both beneficial and harmful implications.
Today we talked about Medical Brain Computer Interface Technology, first about how it works, then about how it’s being used in medicine today, and finally about some implications, both positive and negative, for its future. The technology is still young, and there’s still much we don’t know about the brain. But there are some things that we do know. Scott Routley’s family can now talk to him, and some day, he might be able to talk back. Despite the technology, terminology and jargon, that’s what this, and all medical technology is really about: giving people more time with those they love, and helping us all live a bit more peacefully, and above all, giving those who are brain dead, paralyzed, ill or infirm, a chance to speak.