Communicating via brain waves, by merely thinking, may seem like a notion out of the world of science fiction, but it would be a dream come true for people who are physically unable to express themselves.
Helping to bring mental telepathy one step closer to reality is the Neurocommunicator, a system developed by the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST), in Ibaraki Prefecture.
The device inputs an individual’s finely nuanced brain waves into a computer graphics application geared toward interpreting thoughts.
Ryohei Hasegawa, head of AIST’s Neurotechnology Group of Human Technology Research, said the Neurocommunicator facilitates brain wave communication for people who have been incapacitated by, for example, a stroke, spinal cord injury or neurological disease such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.
“When people lose speaking and writing motility, their quality of life drastically declines,” Hasegawa, whose team unveiled the Neurocommunicator system in 2010, said in an interview last month.
ALS patients may have lost their ability to move or speak but their brain functions, their ability to think and understand, may remain intact and able to send signals that the Neurocommunicator can receive and interpret.
People produce small brain-wave signals through various activities, including thinking, blinking and recognizing. The Neruocommunicator takes advantage of what is called ERP, or “event related potential” — the mental responses to stimuli that can be observed in brain waves.
“There are various changes in electrical potential observed from the brain activities around the scalp. It’s quite well-known that alpha waves are used to see how people relax . . . (but the Neurocommunicator) looks at changes over short periods of time,” Hasegawa said.
The device’s components include headgear equipped with amplifiers and a compact brain-wave gauge capable of monitoring the most minute movements.
The gauge wirelessly sends eight channels of real-time information about brain activity around the scalp that is displayed on a computer screen.
Another screen, used by the patient, shows eight panels displaying physical activity choices — elimination of bodily waste, phlegm-clearing, drinking, being physically turned over, having a TV, air conditioner or light turned on, or having teeth brushed.
Each panel randomly flashes in a span of seconds. To communicate, the patient is told to stare at a certain panel and focus on recognizing when it flashes, which can then be read by the machine.
“When the designated panel flashes, the patients produce strong brain waves (that are not reflected in the other panels). We use this mechanism to guess which panel the patients have chosen,” Hasegawa said.
This strong wave is the ERP, which has a waveform unique to each individual.
Once a person’s ERP waveform has been identified, the communication process becomes quite simple. The patient just looks at the panels and makes a selection by recognizing when it flashes.
Staring at the TV panel and recognizing when it flashes would signal that one wants the television turned on.
The Neurocommunicator compares the ERP patterns in the panels with the individual’s ERP, taken in advance, to determine the patient’s selection in a matter of seconds.
Research has proven the device has an accuracy rate of over 90 percent.
The Neurocommunicator currently uses three different panel sets, which in combination can allow for as many as 512 different types of messages. It also has virtual avatars that can be used to verbalize them.
Although the Neurocommunicator has the potential to be a beneficial communication tool, Hasegawa said it is still unclear when his team can put it into practical use.
“Because AIST is semi-public, we cannot just put the technology on the market. We need to find private firms that can market this technology through licensing,” he said.
The system also needs further improvement, including an interface geared toward nonscientists.
“Right now, an experienced person is monitoring the brain waves. But there are situations where an elderly person is taking care of another elderly person, so we need to make it easy to use even for seniors who have never touched a computer before,” Hasegawa noted.
Another concern is that the flow of the brain waves can easily be affected by outside factors, including interference generated by other electronic devices nearby, he said. EPR impulses are extremely weak and easily overwhelmed by electromagnetic interference.
Although challenges remain in spreading brain wave communications, Hasegawa boasted of its potential.
For example, the system’s ability to detect changes in brain waves might allow doctors to spot declines in cognitive function, paving the way for early detection of dementia, he said.
This section, appearing on the second Monday of each month, features new technologies that are still under research and development but expected to hit the market in coming years.