Interfaces that connect computers to the brain and body are still in their infancy. "But we believe," Gnanayutham and George wrote in research published last year by the Athens Institute for Education and Research, "that our work could be the basis for their more widespread use in extensively extending the activities of severely impaired individuals."
They estimate that the number of scientific teams conducting brain-to-computer research worldwide has jumped from no more than six in 1995 to more than 30 today.
One of the best known groups developing such technology is the Laboratory of Neural Injury and Repair at the Wadsworth Center in Albany, N.Y. Wadsworth researchers have developed a cap that covers the scalp and can read EEG signals emitted by the brain (as shown in this video produced by CBS News's 60 Minutes). Like Gnanayutham, Wadsworth's goal is to get this technology out of the lab and provide it to patients in their homes. Wadsworth's technology, however, costs about $5,000 and requires too much technical support for patients to use the device outside a research setting.
Gnanayutham is hoping to create an affordable and highly usable brain and body computer interface within the next three years, although several challenges remain. Devices such as Cyberlink are available but at a high price and require custom software to be written for them to be useful to individual patients with varying levels of ability to use the interface, he says.
Gaming companies might provide at least part of the solution. San Francisco–based Emotiv Systems, Inc., uses a similar interface technology for its EPOC headset to let players use their own brain activity to interact with the virtual worlds where they play. The $299 headset's 14 strategically placed head sensors are at the ends of what look like stretched, plastic fingers that use an EEG to detect patterns produced by the brain's electrical activity and transform them into actions in the way a joystick might be used.
"What I'd like to do is create portable devices that can be used by anyone," Gnanayutham says, "and make this technology available to the general public so that many will be able to use this as a communication and recreation device on a daily basis."