Seeking information about brain-computer interfaces
August 7, 2012 9:51 AM   Subscribe

Where can I find information about brain-computer interfaces and software available now for the severely physically disabled? I have been able to find many products, through web searching, but no site that compares them and shares the experiences of users. My goal is to help a family member who could benefit from such technology.
posted by espertus to Technology (6 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Need more details to respond usefully. The real 'brain-computer' interface systems that I know about involve brain scanning (fMRI) or electrodes. Both of them are massively time-consuming, expensive and not very accurate (yet). However, most people have some physical ability that allows them to react to a computer, which may include very minimal finger movement, eye movement, head movement, etc.

Search terms that might widen your search might include 'environmental control' or 'alternative and augmentative communication' (we use AAC - you'll understand why). The things that people with physical difficulties use to control these systems are usually called 'switches', though it depends on how they're used.

There are lots of places where AAC systems are reviewed and compared, but your question at the moment is too open. If you're asking for a relative, what *can* your relative do despite their physical disabilty? That's a good place to start. And then ask yourself what you want any software to do.
posted by kadia_a at 11:36 AM on August 7, 2012

Get in touch with a group that specializes in providing these services such as the Center for Rehabilitation Engineering at the University of Massachusetts. They can probably help you get a general feel for what technology is available and point you in the right direction.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 12:30 PM on August 7, 2012

Thanks for the feedback. I was thinking of a removable system with electrodes, such as the ones from Emotiv [].

The user has enough control of his hand to type, but we fear that ability might be lost in the future. He is unable to speak. He is able to make facial expressions and move his eyes and head.

FWIW, we're in the San Francisco Bay Area.
posted by espertus at 12:34 PM on August 7, 2012

Haven't seen Emotiv before, and I haven't seen people with physical disability using systems with electrodes, but that doesn't mean it's not happening. If you can learn to use this device to reliably move a mouse pointer and your relative has normal cognitive function (that's a big if - there aren't many causes of progressive physical disability that don't commonly cause cognitive problems too) then this could work.

I haven't seen any reviews of things like this with physical disability though. Is there a national charity for whatever physical disability your relative has? Sometimes they are able to point you towards people who are already using systems you are considering.

The disadvantage of doing something that looks quite experimental (like the Emotiv) is that you wouldn't have the backup and support that you get with a company that's set up to provide assistive technology. My experience with all kinds of AAC is that if you don't have sufficient training, it doesn't really 'take'. The other thing you can get from specialised companies is free trials of their equipment. Might be worth trying out some eye tracking stuff if you can, just because it's a bit better established. Still takes quite some time to learn and it's not for everyone.

If something like that could work then you could use it to operate something like Dasher or JayBee, both of which I've tried using and liked.

Might be worth looking around with your relative at the software options too, depending on what they want to be able to do. The two above are looking to increase speed and efficiency for people who are having to select letter-by-letter, which is going to be an issue no matter how your relative accesses the computer.

Thanks for sharing the Emotiv stuff - that's really exciting and I'm going to be reading more.

Best of luck. If you can get specialist support then it's well worth it.
posted by kadia_a at 1:45 PM on August 7, 2012

If you need help with communication, a speech-language pathologist who specializes in augmentative communication is a good place to start.

I'll second Kadia_a about AAC... without more details, it's hard to understand what exactly you're going for (communication? environmental control? something else?) Diagnoses and previous level of functioning will all need to be considered when thinking about technology to augment function. There are communication devices that use eye gaze to control computers, for example those manufactured by Tobii or Eye Gaze. Maybe that would help? Unfortunately I'm on the East coast and don't know of any speech-language pathologist AAC experts out west, but if you want to help tracking one down MeMail me.

Best of luck to you and your loved one.
posted by absquatulate at 1:50 PM on August 7, 2012

Thanks for the suggestions. I haven't talked with the relative yet, but communication is probably the highest priority, followed by the ability to control a computer.

The will also look into websites for people with related disorders. (His is extremely rare.)

(Since I'm a computer scientist, I was inclined to start thinking from the technological side, not the human side, but that was a mistake.)
posted by espertus at 3:32 PM on August 7, 2012

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