Monday, October 17, 2011



The inner workings of the brain can now be read using low cost hardware

You don't have to be a Jedi to make things move with your mind.

Granted, we may not be able to lift a spaceship out of a swamp like Yoda does in The Empire Strikes Back, but it is possible to steer a model car, drive a wheelchair and control a robotic exoskeleton with just your thoughts.

"The first thing is to clear your mind…to think of nothing," says Ed Jellard; a young man with the quirky title of senior inventor.

We are standing in a testing room at IBM's Emerging Technologies lab in Winchester, England.

On my head is a strange headset that looks like a black plastic squid. Its 14 tendrils, each capped with a moistened electrode, are supposed to detect specific brain signals.

In front of us is a computer screen, displaying an image of a floating cube.

As I think about pushing it, the cube responds by drifting into the distance.

Admittedly, the system needed a fair bit of pre-training to achieve this single task. But it has, nonetheless, learned to associate a specific thought pattern with a particular movement.

The headset, which was developed by Australian company Emotiv for the games industry, has been around for some time. But it is only now that companies such as IBM are beginning to harness the wealth of data that it can provide.

Using software developed in-house, researchers have linked the Emotiv to devices such as a model car, a light switch and a television.

Control signals come from two main sources; electroencephalography (EEG) measurements of brain activity, and readings of nerve impulses as they travel outwards to the muscles.

MindSet headsetThere is now a variety of brainwave-reading headsets on the market, mostly used for video gaming
Restoring movement

New techniques for processing such information are enabling sophisticated real world applications.

Already the team has used the system to help a patient with locked-in syndrome, whose healthy, active mind became trapped in a motionless body following a stroke.

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We linked the headset to the IBM middleware, and when he pushed the cube on the screen, that behaved like a click of the mouse”

Kevin BrownIBM

"We linked the headset to the IBM middleware, and when he pushed the cube on the screen, that behaved like a click of the mouse - so he was able to use the computer," explained IBM's Kevin Brown.

Many commercial mind control technologies are designed to restore physical ability to those who have lost it.

At Switzerland's Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL), researchers have applied brain-computer interface technology to create thought-controlled wheelchairs and telepresence robots.

"A disabled patient who can't move can instead navigate such a robot around his house to participate in the social life of the family," explains the team leader, Professor Jose del Millan.

"To do that, a helmet detects the intention of some physical movement and translates it into action."

Prof. Sankai, CYBERDYNE, Inc./Univ. of TsukubaBrain-controlled Cyberdyne's Hal suit allows disabled patients to walk again

Japanese company Cyberdyne is helping people who cannot walk to regain mobility by dressing them in a full-body robotic suit called Hal.

Just as some of IBM's readings come from nerve impulses, rather than brain waves, Cyberdyne uses tiny sensors on the limbs to measure the subject's intention to move, even if the physical act is impossible.

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A disabled patient who can't move can instead navigate such a robot around his house to participate in the social life of the family”

Prof Jose del MillanEPFL

The robot body responds by moving its arms or legs. Webcams and computer screens enabling the user to pilot their machine and communicate with friends and family through their proxy body.

Outside the healthcare field, another implementation, being developed by EPFL in partnership with car maker Nissan, is an intelligent vehicle that can use brainwave data.

Supported by numerous external sensors and cameras, brain wave sensors read what the driver is planning to do next.

Having anticipated their intentions, the car takes over, eliminating the need for tedious and time consuming physical movement.

For those who prefer pedal power, Toyota is working with Saatchi & Saatchi, Parlee Cycles and DeepLocal to develop a bicycle which can shift gear based on its rider's thoughts.

Prototype of an intelligent carIn future, cars might be able to assist the drivers by reading their brainwaves
Suits and microchips

Headsets and helmets offer cheap, easy-to-use ways of tapping into the mind. But there are other, more invasive techniques being developed.

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Imagine some kind of a wireless computer device in your head that you'll use for mind control - what if people hacked into that”

Prof Noel SharkeyUniversity of Sheffield

At Brown Institute for Brain Science in the US, scientists are busy inserting chips right into the human brain.

The technology, dubbed BrainGate, sends mental commands directly to a PC.

Subjects still have to be physically "plugged" into a computer via cables coming out of their heads, in a setup reminiscent of the film The Matrix. However, the team is now working on miniaturising the chips and making them wireless.

BrainGate is developing ways of using the output to control a computer cursor, on-screen keyboard, and even manipulate robotic arms.

After testing it on monkeys, the scientists have now started human trials. Lead researcher Prof John Donoghue hopes that one day, his groundbreaking research will help people with spinal cord injuries or locked-in syndrome to walk again just by thinking of moving their limbs.

Cyclist, mind-controlled bicycleMind controlled bikes would change gear at the flick of a thought
Robot warriors?

But extracting information from the brain, be it by internal or external sensors, is only part of the story.

Much of the current research effort is looking at how to efficiently process and utilise the vast streams of data that the brain produces.

Turning analogue thoughts into digital information links human beings directly to electronic information networks, such as the internet. The brain becomes becomes yet another sensor to be analysed and interrogated.

And as techniques for crunching that output get more sophisticated, the technology it drives will move beyond simple device control.

"People like data," said IBM's Ed Jellard. "So if you can see patterns of data, the geekier people will be very interested to see what is going on in their brain and how it is changing over time.

"I would be interest to know if my brain is getting stronger and if I have more intense thoughts. Things like that could be useful."

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If you can see patterns of data, the geekier people will be very interested to see what is going on in their brain and how it is changing over time”

Ed JellardIBM

While it is possible to translate brain waves into machine processable data, there remains something unique and special about those signals that rocket around inside our skulls.

They are not the same as lasers in a fibre optic cable or electrons in a microprocessor, and tapping the mind will raise philosophical and ethical questions, according to Prof Noel Sharkey.

"Once the military get a hold of it, they will push it very hard," he explains.

"At the moment they are filling the airspace in Afghanistan with drones that only one person can control - but if they get the helmets well enough developed, they'll be able to control a number of planes or robot warriors directly with their thoughts."

There are also questions about what form cyber crime would take in the age of the wired mind?

"Imagine some kind of a wireless computer device in your head that you'll use for mind control - what if people hacked into that, what could they do to you and your property?," continues Prof Sharkey.

"And what if you are forced to wear a device and someone controls you with his thoughts, making you do things?..."

The possibilities, both positive and negative, are literally mind boggling.

People Power


The biofuel cell, uses glucose and oxygen at concentrations found in the body to generate electricity.

Plugging gadgets into a socket in the wall, or loading them with batteries - or maybe even unfurling a solar panel - is how most of us think of getting electricity. But what about plugging them into your body?

It may sound far fetched, but under the shadow of the Alps, Dr Serge Cosnier and his team at the Joseph Fourier University of Grenoble have built a device to do just that. Their gadget, called a biofuel cell, uses glucose and oxygen at concentrations found in the body to generate electricity.

They are the first group in the world to demonstrate their device working while implanted in a living animal. If all goes to plan, within a decade or two, biofuel cells may be used to power a range of medical implants, from sensors and drug delivery devices to entire artificial organs. All you'll need to do to power them up is eat a candy bar, or drink a coke.

Biofuel cells could kick-start a revolution in artificial organs and prosthetics that would transform tens of thousands of lives every year.

A new range of artificial, electrically-powered organs are now under development, including hearts, kidneys, and bladder sphincter, and work has begun on fully-functioning artificial limbs such as hands, fingers, and even eyes. But they all have one Achilles heel: they need electricity to run.

Batteries are good enough for implants that don't need much power, but they run out fast, and when it comes to implants, that is more than just an inconvenience, it is a fundamental limitation.

Even devices that do not use much power, such as pacemakers, have a fixed lifespan because they rely on batteries.

They usually need their power packs replaced 5 years after implantation. One study in the US found that one in five 70 year-olds implanted with a pacemaker, survived for another 20 years - meaning this group needed around 3 additional operations after the initial implant, just to replace the battery.

Each operation is accompanied by the risk of the complications of surgery, not something anybody should have to face if it is avoidable.

Other devices such as artificial kidneys, limbs or eyes, would have such high energy demands that users would have to change their power source every few weeks to keep them working. It is simply impractical to use batteries in these devices.

That is where biofuel cells come in. Dr Cosnier and his team are one of a growing number of researchers around the world developing the technology in an attempt to side-step this inherent limitation.

Bodily fluids
Computer model of nanotube and enzymesThe fuel cells are made from a compressed push of enzymes and carbon nanotubes.

At heart, biofuel cells are incredibly simple. They are made of two special electrodes - one is endowed with the ability to remove electrons from glucose, the other with the ability to donate electrons to molecules of oxygen and hydrogen, producing water.

Pop these electrodes into a solution containing glucose and oxygen, and one will start to rip electrons off the glucose and the other will start dumping electrons onto oxygen. Connect the electrodes to a circuit and they produce a net flow of electrons from one electrode to the other via the circuit - resulting in an electrical current.

Glucose and oxygen are both freely available in the human body, so hypothetically, a biofuel cell could keep working indefinitely. "A battery consumes the energy stored in it, and when it's finished, it's finished. A biofuel cell in theory can work without limits because it consumes substances that come from physiological fluids, and are constantly being replenished," said Dr Cosnier.

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A bio fuel cell in theory can work without limits because it consumes substances that come from physiological fluids.”

Dr Serge CosnierJoseph Fourier University

The idea of powering fuel cells using glucose and oxygen found in physiological fluids was first suggested in the 1970s, but fell by the wayside because the amount of energy early prototypes produced was too little to be of practical use.

However, in the 2002, advances in biotechnology spurred Itamar Willner, a researcher at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, to dust down the idea and give it a fresh look.

In a paper published in the prestigious journal Science, he speculated that thanks to advances in biotechnology, the day would come when devices such as artificial limbs and organs would soon be powered by biofuel cells that create electricity from bodily fluids.

"Since then biofuel cells have received a huge amount of attention," said Dr Eileen Yu, a researcher at Newcastle University, who is part of UK-wide multi-university project to develop biofuel cells.

Nano technology

The key to the recent breakthroughs has been our understanding of rather special biological molecules called enzymes. Enzymes are naturally occurring molecules that speed up chemical reactions. Researchers studying bio fuel cells have discovered that one particular enzyme, called glucose oxidase, is extremely good at removing electrons from glucose. "It is very efficient at generating electrons," said Prof Willner.

Spurred by new developments in enzyme manipulation, and the growth in availability of carbon nanotubes - which are highly efficient electrical conductors - many groups around the world have developed bio fuel cells capable of producing electricity.

Dr Cosnier and his team decided to take things one step further. "In the last 10 years there has been an exponential increase in research, and some important breakthroughs in enzyme research," he said.

He decided it was time to make the first attempt to take the cumulative knowledge of the last decade of research and engineer it into a device the size of a grain of rice that could generate electricity while implanted inside a rat.

Nanotube electrodeTiny bio fuel cells sit inside the body turning glucose and oxygen into power.

In 2010, they tested their fuel cell in a rat for 40 days and reported that it worked flawlessly, producing a steady electrical current throughout, with no noticeable side effects on the rat's behaviour or physiology.

Their system is surprisingly straightforward. The electrodes are made by compressing a paste of carbon nanotubes mixed with glucose oxidase for one electrode, and glucose and polyphenol oxidase for the other.

The electrodes have a platinum wire inserted in them to carry the current to the circuit. Then the electrodes are wrapped in a special material that prevents any nanotubes or enzymes from escaping into the body.

Finally, the whole package is wrapped in a mesh that protects the electrodes from the body's immune system, while still allowing the free flow of glucose and oxygen to the electrodes. The whole package is then implanted in the rat.

"It is an important step towards demonstrating the translation of basic research into a practical device," said Willner. "It shows the feasibility of making an implantable package."

Implantation in a rat was a good proof of concept, said Dr Cosnier, but it had drawbacks. "Rats are so small that the production of energy is insufficient to power a conventional device."

Next he plans to scale up his fuel cell and implant it in a cow. "There is more space, so a larger fuel cell can be implanted, meaning a greater current will be generated."

Dr Cosnier hopes it will be enough to power a transmitter that will be able to beam out of the cow information about the device and control sensors inside the animal.

More power
Stitching fuel cell into meshFuel cells are wrapped in a mesh to prevent the body rejecting them.

There is still a long way to go. Prof Willner explains that, while the enzyme glucose oxidase has performed optimally, the efficiency of the electron-donating enzymes could still be dramatically improved. He is optimistic that breakthroughs will be made.

"Based on the current rate of progress, I am confident we will see exciting developments in the next decade," said Prof Willner.

Dr Cosnier agrees that there is a lot of room for improvement. "Today we can generate enough power to supply an artificial urinary sphincter, or pacemaker. We are already working on a system that can produce 50 times that amount of power, then we will have enough to supply much more demanding devices," he said.

Implants aren't the only place you may find bio fuel cells in the future. The electronics giant Sony recently announced that it had created a biofuel cell fuelled with glucose and water that was capable of powering an MP3 player. "In 10 years time you may see bio fuel cells in laptops and mobile phones," said Prof Willner.

Dr Cosnier points out that bio fuel cells would be especially useful in places where there is no electricity supply to recharge your batteries. "If you were in a country without electricity, and needed to re-charge a bio fuel cell, all you would have to do is add sugar and water."

Monday, October 3, 2011

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