Less than a century ago, Hans Berger, a German psychiatrist, was placing silver foil electrodes on his patients’ heads and observing small ripples of continuous electrical voltage emerging from these. These were the first human brain waves to ever be recorded. Since Hans Berger’s first recordings, our knowledge on the brain structure and function has developed considerably. We now have a much clearer understanding of the neuronal sources that generate these electrical signals and the technology that is now available allows us to get a much denser and accurate picture of how these electrical signals change in time and across the human scalp.

The recording and analysis of brain signals has advanced to a level where people are now able to control and interact with devices around them with the use of their brain signals. The field of brain-computer interfaces has in fact garnered huge interest during the past two decades, and the development of low-cost hardware solutions together with the continuously evolving signal analysis techniques, have brought this technology closer to market than ever before.

Research in the field of brain-computer interfaces was primarily propelled by the need of finding novel communication channels for individuals suffering from severe mobility disorders as in the case of patients with locked-in syndrome. People suffering from the condition have a perfectly functioning brain but are trapped inside their body, which no longer responds to the signals being transmitted from their brain.

In these cases, brain-computer interfaces provide a means to bypass the body’s nervous and muscular systems allowing interaction with one’s surrounding by translating the electrical signals from the brain directly into commands to operate a computer or other device. The development of reliable brain-computer interface systems can thereby lead to unprecedented levels of autonomy for these individuals.

Researchers at the Centre for Biomedical Cybernetics and the Department of Systems and Control Engineering at the University of Malta are exploring new ways of processing brain signals in order to enhance the range and the reliability of commands that brain-computer interface system users can execute. By taking into account the time-varying characteristics of the brain signals as well as the relationship between signals recorded from different parts of the brain, researchers at the University of Malta are creating new algorithms for the automated processing of these signals that can yield faster and more reliable system responses, as well as a more natural means of interaction through brain-computer interface designs that are fine-tuned to a specific individual’s needs.

Did you know!

• Simple, repetitive muscle movements are called periodic limb movements and can happen either while you’re awake or asleep.

• It is believed that the average number of thoughts that humans experience amounts to 70,000.

• Evidence was found by archaeologists that primitive brain surgery was performed by drilling a hole in the skull!

• Some physicists claim that the hottest temperature is the Planck Temperature, whereby it is claimed that it is the highest temperature that matter could theoretically exist. This is roughly around 100 million million million million million degrees Kelvin.

For more trivia see: www.um.edu.mt/think

Sound bites

• Can your thoughts be decoded to speech or written words? While this could enhance the already existing speech interfaces with devices, it could really impact patients who are ‘locked in’ who lack speech or motor function. The subjects in this study were epilepsy patients who already had electrode grids implanted for treatment of their condition. The database of patterns of neural signals were formed by the participants reading out texts from a screen while their brain activity was recorded. These patterns could then be matched to speech elements. When language and dictionary models were included in their algorithms, the neural signals could be decoded with a high degree of accuracy. While these results are exciting, this is only a first step towards this type of brain-computer interface.


• Brain computer interface helps a paralysed man regain his sense of touch. At 18, Nathan Copeland had lost his feeling in his arms and fingers due to an accident. However, 10 years later he regained feeling through the use of a robotic arm that he can control with his brain. Mr Copeland did the operation last spring. Elizabeth Tyler-Kabara, MD, PhD, assistant professor at the Department of Neurological Surgery, Pitt School of Medicine, implanted four tiny microelectrode arrays in Nathan’s brain. Imaging techniques were used to locate the exact regions where Nathan’s brain corresponded to feelings in every finger and palm of his hand. Things seems promising and off to a good start to create such a system where the arm moves like a natural one would.


• A brain computer control interface for a lower limb exoskeleton is something scientists at the Korea University are working on. This is possible by specific signals that are decoded within the user’s brain. An electroencephalogram (EEG) cap is used that allows its users to move forward, turn right and left, sit and stand by staring at one of five flickering light emitting diodes (LEDs). Each LED has its own frequency and when the user focuses on a specific LED this is reflected within the EEG signal. This is then recognised and in turn used to control the exoskeleton.


• For more soundbites, listen to Radio Mocha on Radju Malta 2 every Monday at 1pm and Friday at 6pm.


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