Research that demonstrates the brain's ability to control activity on a computer could have educational implications, potentially facilitating learning and development for students of all abilities. Could such findings ultimately lead to the development of a touchpad controlled by the mind?
Funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), and the National Institute of Mental Health, the study analyzed brain activity data from epilepsy patients who had been hospitalized for brain surgery to control seizures.
Each patient's brain was connected to a computer through a brain–machine interface, or BMI (also known as a brain–computer interface, or BCI), giving researchers access to a "part of the brain where thoughts are happening," says Moran Cerf, a study co-author and postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles. BMI/BCI technology offers "a way for the brain to communicate with a machine that will then do what the brain tells it to do," explains Debra Babcock, M.D., Ph.D., a program director at NINDS.
Once connected, patients were shown photographs of objects and people to determine if their brain's response to those images would cause the images to grow larger or smaller. Remarkably, their brains did just that: The patients actively decided which images they wanted to see using only their minds — and without any physical intervention.
"Subjects learned to control which image came forward or retreated with just four neurons, which was somewhat unexpected, given that the brain has billions of neurons," Babcock says. That's valuable insight because it demonstrates clearly which neurons control memories and how the mind determines what it sees, she adds.
Current touchpad technology allows today's students to move images and text with a finger swipe. But the work of researchers suggests that "thought-pads" could be in our future.
Wiring students' brains to a computer is invasive and impractical, of course, so thought-pads won't hit classrooms anytime soon. But experts say advances in miniaturization and nanotechnology could help make such capabilities more pervasive and more broadly applicable in the future.
"The notion that we're going to have nanotech, with trillions of connections at the brain–machine level, will facilitate a radical rewiring and extension of human abilities," says James Hughes, Ph.D., executive director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, a think tank that focuses on the implications of technological advancements. The beneficiaries of such advances, at least for now, will be those with profound disabilities, such as epilepsy, he says, "because you don't want to open up healthy people's brains."
Advances in tiny, noninvasive devices will be required to make these developments possible. In the meantime, some existing technologies are aiding those with disabilities. For example, cochlear implants enable deaf or hearing-impaired people to experience sound. It may take 30 to 50 years for other technologies to catch up, Hughes adds, but one day, students may well be able to call up a contact list or tweet an idea with merely a thought.
Brain–machine (or brain–computer) interface (BMI/BCI) applications in use today portend the technology's potential in the classroom. For example, soldiers who have lost arms or legs in battle currently use BMI/BCI to control how their artificial limbs move. And amyotrophic lateral sclerosis patients living with paralysis sometimes use surface (rather than internally implanted) electrodes to move the cursor on a computer screen, says James Hughes, executive director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies.
If thought-pad technology continues to advance, students one day could use BMI/BCI to manipulate physical objects in a science or mathematics lesson, for example.