Joseph Zeni, PT, PhD – Brain Blogger Health and Science Blog Covering Brain Topics Wed, 30 May 2018 15:00:03 +0000 en-US hourly 1 The Reality of the Brain-Computer Interface Fri, 14 Aug 2009 13:00:31 +0000 Imagine having the ability to turn on the television and change the channel without using a remote control. Or better yet, imagine navigating the internet and sending emails using just the power of your thoughts. Although it may sounds like something out of a science fiction movie, these ideas are becoming a reality. The brain-computer interface is the next technological achievement that blurs the line between science fiction and scientific reality.

What is the brain computer interface (BCI)?

BCI encompasses a wide range of technological ideas that allow our brains to directly communicate and control external devices via a computer. It is well-established that our brain transmits signals via electrical impulses (whether it be signals that control limb movement or signals that encode the color of a flower). These electrical impulses are recorded by electrodes placed either on the scalp or within the brain tissue, and converted into binary signals that can be interpreted by computer programs. These computer programs use the decoded signal to control a wheelchair, a mouse on a computer screen or even a robotic arm that can grasp objects. Alternatively, the BCI can work in the opposite direction. Signals generated by a computer can be converted to electrical impulses and sent to the brain. The brain then interprets these impulses as a smell, a color, a movement or even a visual outline. Either way, the BCI is the first technology to directly utilize the electrical signals generated by the brain tissue to control external devices and vice versa.

The importance of BCI devices

At first thought, spending large amounts of money for a device that can be thought of as an interactive video game may seem superfluous. However, this technology may afford severely disabled persons the opportunity to communicate while simultaneously restoring their independence and mobility. Conditions such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or more commonly Lou Gehrig’s Disease), muscular dystrophy and spinal cord injury often leave individuals without the ability to move, while their cognitive function is unaffected. Persons with ALS, muscular dystrophy and spinal cord injury are still capable of creating motor plans within the cerebral cortex, although the signals are not transmitted to the muscles. Scientists are working to capture the signals created in the cortex and utilizing them to control external devices.

BCI – where are we now?

Although the concept has been around for nearly 40 years, scientists have made significant advancements in BCI technology over the past 10 years. BCI technology has recently been used to drive a robotic arm for self-feeding in a monkey. The animal was initially trained using a joystick to control the robotic arm. The joystick was eventually weaned and motor activity from the cortex was recorded via an implanted electrode. Signals from the cortex were decoded in real-time to control the movement of the robotic arm. The monkey was then able to feed himself via the robotic arm, using only his conscious thought.

While these trials are impressive, they are not the focus of the majority of BCI research. The next most important step is creating devices that improve functional ability in humans with disabilities. Researchers at Brown University are currently conducting clinical trials in humans with the ultimate goal of restoring “the communication, mobility and independence of people with severe paralysis.” BCI devices that acquire signals through EEG technology or implanted invasive techniques are currently being used by disabled individuals to control wheelchairs, type on a computer and even send text messages.

While the media has glorified the use of BCI devices, there are many limitations to the current BCI technology. In order to make BCI devices a tangible reality for a large portion of persons with disabilities, specific roadblocks need to be passed. The current technology permits only a few words per minute to be “typed” using BCI devices. The speed and accuracy of the decoding and signal analysis would need to be greatly enhanced to permit real-time communication. The current technology is also limited the BCI control of robotic extremities to small movements in a confined space. For a practical real-world application, the methodology and timing of signal extraction would need to be improved vastly beyond the present day possibilities. To date, much of the BCI devices are operated in research settings, with few practical devices being used outside of the laboratory. The goal of many scientists working on the technology is to create user-friendly devices that can be operated in an individual’s home without supervision. Presently, there are very few of these types of devices available.

The future of BCI

The future for BCI technology is boundless. This technology will offer future generations with disabilities the ability to communicate and interact with their environment in ways that we have viewed as impossible for millennia. In addition to restoring mobility to disabled persons, the technology also offers a potential method to overcome blindness, deafness and other sensory-affected conditions. In a world that is continually more “plugged in” day after day, the exchange of information has become nearly completely digital. This environment fosters the development of BCI technology and continues to expand the possibilities of BCI applications.


Hochberg, Leigh. Hope for people with paralysis. Brain-Computer Interface, Developed at Brown, Begins New Clinical Trial. Brown University Press Release. Jun 10 2009.

Birbaumer N. Brain-computer-interface research: coming of age. Clin Neurophysiol. Mar 2006;117(3):479-483. doi:10.1016/j.clinph.2005.11.002

Vaughan TM, Heetderks WJ, Trejo LJ, et al. Brain-computer interface technology: a review of the Second International Meeting. IEEE Trans Neural Syst Rehabil Eng. Jun 2003;11(2):94-109. doi:10.1109/TNSRE.2003.814799

Velliste M, Perel S, Spalding MC, Whitford AS, & Schwartz AB (2998). Cortical control of a prosthetic arm for self-feeding Nature, 453 (7198), 1098-1101 DOI: 10.1038/nature06996

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The Slow-Developing Human – Rationale for a Species of Newborn Motor Morons Wed, 29 Jul 2009 13:00:04 +0000 Dolphins are born swimming, cattle can walk within hours and lions are able to run within 20 days of birth. Compare this to a human newborn who will require months before he is able to merely sit without support. More advanced skills like running and jumping may take years to develop in a human newborn. As a species, the speed at which our motor skills emerge lags far behind most other species. Despite a slow rate of motor development, we surpass these other animals in intelligence and fine motor skills later in life. What are the reasons for this? Although it may seem paradoxical, our intelligence is exactly the reason for our slow development.

With increasing intelligence comes an increase in brain size. Fortunately for our child-bearing females, humans are born mentally underdeveloped with a brain size that is limited by the diameter of the birthing canal. Newborn infants are nurtured by their mothers and are sheltered from the elements. They are emotionally supported and protected from predators. This has given rise to commonly termed “Fourth Trimester,” the period of time after the child is born, but still requires a supervisory individual for survival. During this period our motor skills develop slowly, while our cognition advances at a pace much faster than any other species.

Cognitive development is what separates us from other species. Take our ability to communicate, for example. Although numerous other animals utilize intricate methods of communication (see Prairie dog alarm calls encode labels about predator colors for a surprising look into the complexity of animal communication), no other method of communication compares to our languages. As humans, we have the ability to communicate not only information necessary for survival, but also the ability to communicate ideas, feelings and abstract thoughts. While this is beyond the capacity of every other animal species, humans are able to comprehend and integrate language within a few years of development. This may be due to the plasticity of our brains at birth. As children, our cortical development occurs as we explore our environment and touch, smell and taste our surroundings. We are capable of determining how our actions impact the world and how the world affects us. Perhaps most importantly, our brains continue to develop as we listen to our parents speak and communicate with one another. Instead of simply aping our parents’ actions and words, our developing brains may allow us to internalize the language as we develop and create cortical connections based on the constant communication around us. Unlike other animals, our development does not end at birth, but rather, is merely beginning.

Another reason that we may appear to develop our motor skills at a slower pace due to our ability to perform complex tasks. Humans have evolved into an animal specifically designed to carry out intricate movements that require an extraordinary amount of fine motor control. Because structure dictates our function, we have many degrees of freedom available at all of our joints. Controlling this motion requires an exceptional amount of coordinated movements in both the large proximal muscles of the trunk and limbs and smaller muscles of the hands, feet and digits. Seemingly simple tasks, such as writing, drawing or standing up straight require the coordinated movement of hundreds of muscles. Learning to control this movement puts humans on a slower rate of development, although the complexity of the movements is much greater than in other species.

Until our anatomy evolves to permit the birth of newborns with a fully developed brain, we will continue to develop motor skills slower than all other animal species. In the grand scheme of things, slow motor development that allows for future intellectual capacity greater than any other species may not be such a bad thing. Our slowly developing brain can be molded by our experiences after we are born, permitting directional development that may not be possible in other species that are born mentally mature.


BARRICKMAN, N., BASTIAN, M., ISLER, K., & VANSCHAIK, C. (2008). Life history costs and benefits of encephalization: a comparative test using data from long-term studies of primates in the wild Journal of Human Evolution, 54 (5), 568-590 DOI: 10.1016/j.jhevol.2007.08.012

Slobodchikoff CN, Paseka A, Verdolin JL. Prairie dog alarm calls encode labels about predator colors. Anim Cogn. May 2009;12(3):435-439. doi:

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