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What Is a Brain-Computer Interface in Medicine?

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on September 13, 2022

Imagine a future where people can use their minds to control a device, like a robotic arm or a wheelchair. Sound like science fiction? The world of brain-computer interfaces is coming sooner than you think.

A brain-computer interface (BCI) is a computer system that enables brain signals to control an external device. People may wear it externally, or doctors may place an implant into the brain. Researchers are still testing the technology.

What Does a Brain-Computer Interface Do?

Researchers are exploring the use of brain-computer interfaces for a variety of medical problems. For instance, a BCI may let someone communicate who can’t otherwise do so. It works by harnessing brain signals and translating them through a device so the message appears on a screen. The user may not regain their ability to speak in this scenario, but they would have a way to communicate when they otherwise would not have one.

BCIs could help people with severe disabilities to interact with their environment, communicate, and enhance independence. BCIs have restored sensation in body parts that could not move. They have been used to help people operate wheelchairs and improve language after a stroke. Research has enabled people to use a BCI to control a robotic arm.

But they can be used by people without severe disabilities as well. BCIs have eased pain from spinal cord injuries as well as migraines. Scientists are testing how they can use feedback in the brain to retrain brainwave patterns. This could provide new treatments for mental and sleep disorders, as well as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Researchers are also checking to see if BCIs can be used to treat Parkinson’s disease. And scientists are testing a hat-like BCI to operate drones.

How Does a BCI Work?

Sometimes researchers attach electrodes from a BCI to a person's scalp. In other cases, doctors put an implant into a person's brain.

Based on the action desired, researchers target different brainwaves. The device then reads and interprets the brain signals, and then translates that data into commands.

The commands produce an action, such as moving a robotic arm. For example, the person who uses a BCI to convey messages into text on a screen would need a BCI that translates the brainwaves into text.

How Can We Use BCIs?

BCIs are moving from the theory stage into actual production. Researchers are testing them on people for a variety of applications.

Recently, surgeons were able to implant a device to activate hard-to-reach areas of the brain called sulci. As a result, people could feel their fingertips. Some researchers say that such BCIs can reverse paralysis.

In July 2022, a doctor put Synchron’s Stentrode implant into the brain of a person with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). The device is inserted via the neck. The patient then had another procedure to connect the Stentrode to a computing device in the chest. The goal was to help the patient, who can’t move or speak, to communicate by putting thoughts into words that would be displayed on a screen.

What’s Next for Brain-Computer Interfaces?

People are already using BCIs, but they are not yet mainstream. Most applications are in single use or in study settings. As researchers learn more, the devices could be used by patients for everyday use.

New devices are being created, and some are being tested on others. Researchers are working on algorithms to improve accuracy of the data used as well.

Because scientists are testing the device in humans, the FDA has stepped in to give guidance. Some experts say the FDA should not be in charge of regulating the devices, but should be allowed to evaluate them. They note that some people will use the devices for medical needs, while others may seek them for enhancement or enjoyment.

When will BCIs be readily available? Challenges still remain because devices must be tested long term to make sure they're safe. There are also ethical and legal concerns. Creating devices and systems that are less invasive, effective, and affordable are other considerations moving forward. On the whole, research on BCIs is moving quickly, and many people say they will be available sooner than we may think.

Show Sources

SOURCES:

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