No joystick required. Researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine have developed a system that lets users play a video game using their thoughts alone. This achievement could lead to the development of biomedical devices that let patients control prosthetics simply by thinking about them.
The researchers have been working with a 14-year-old boy with epilepsy. A grid on top of the surface of the teen's brain records electrocortiographic activity, feeding data to the brain-machine interface. Using a special program known as BCI2000, the researchers linked the classic 1970s video game Space Invaders into the grid.
First, the teen performed simple tasks like moving his hands, talking, and imagining. This generated data indicating which parts of the brain and what brain signals correlate to these actions. Next, he played a round of Space Invaders using just his tongue and hand. After that, he imagined the same movements without performing them. The system then had enough data to translate the teen's thoughts into cursor control.
"He cleared out the whole level one basically on brain control," said Eric Leuthardt, an assistant professor of neurological surgery. "We then gave him a more challenging version in two dimensions, and he mastered two levels playing with his own imagination."
Originally, doctors had implanted the grid to find the area of the brain that served as the focus for the boy's seizures, with hopes of removing it to prevent future episodes. Yet the experiment has opened the doors to countless applications.
"Doing this is a win-win situation, both for science and the child," Leuthardt said. "We devised this to be enjoyable and entertaining while we get groundbreaking information on the brain."
WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY IN ST. LOUIS SCHOOL OF MEDICINE