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A Brain-Computer Interface That Lasts for Weeks

Flexible EEG sensor stays stuck to your through showers, swims, and sleep

2 min read
A Brain-Computer Interface That Lasts for Weeks
Photo: John Rogers/University of Illinois

imgPhoto: John Rogers/University of Illinois

Brain signals can be read using soft, flexible, wearable electrodes that stick onto and near the ear like a temporary tattoo and can stay on for more than two weeks even during highly demanding activities such as exercise and swimming, researchers say.

The invention could be used for a persistent brain-computer interface (BCI) to help people operate prosthetics, computers, and other machines using only their minds, scientists add.

For more than 80 years, scientists have analyzed human brain activity non-invasively by recording electroencephalograms (EEGs). Conventionally, this involves electrodes stuck onto the head with conductive gel. The electrodes typically cannot stay mounted to the skin for more than a few days, which limits widespread use of EEGs for applications such as BCIs.

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Now materials scientist John Rogers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and his colleagues have developed a wearable device that can help record EEGs uninterrupted for more than 14 days. Moreover, their invention survived despite showering, bathing, and sleeping. And it did so without irritating the skin. The two weeks might be "a rough upper limit, defined by the timescale for natural exfoliation of skin cells," Rogers says. 

The device consists of a soft, foldable collection of gold electrodes only 300 nanometers thick and 30 micrometers wide mounted on a soft plastic film. This assemblage stays stuck to the body using electric forces known as van der Waals interactions—the same forces that help geckoes cling cling to walls.

The electrodes are flexible enough to mold onto the ear and the mastoid process behind the ear. The researchers mounted the device onto three volunteers using tweezers. Spray-on bandage was used once twice a day to help the electrodes survive normal daily activities.

The electrodes on the mastoid process recorded brain activity while those on the ear were used as a ground wire. The electrodes were connected to a stretchable wire that could plug into monitoring devices. "Most of the experiments used devices mounted on just one side, but dual sides is certainly possible," Rogers says.

The device helped record brain signals well enough for the volunteers to operate a text-speller by thought, albeit at a slow rate of 2.3 to 2.5 letters per minute.

According to Rogers, this research: 

...could enable a persistent BCI that one could imagine might help disabled people, for whom mind control is an attractive option for operating prosthetics… It could also be useful for monitoring cognitive states—for instance, to see if people are paying attention while they're driving a truck, flying an airplane, or operating complex machinery. It could also help monitor patterns of sleep to better understand sleep disorders such as sleep apnea, or for monitoring brain function during learning.

The scientists hope to improve the speed at which people can use this device to communicate mentally, which could expand its use into commercial wearable electronics. They also plan to explore devices that can operate wirelessly, Rogers says. The researchers detailed their findings online March 16 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The Conversation (0)
A photo showing machinery in a lab

Foundries such as the Edinburgh Genome Foundry assemble fragments of synthetic DNA and send them to labs for testing in cells.

Edinburgh Genome Foundry, University of Edinburgh

In the next decade, medical science may finally advance cures for some of the most complex diseases that plague humanity. Many diseases are caused by mutations in the human genome, which can either be inherited from our parents (such as in cystic fibrosis), or acquired during life, such as most types of cancer. For some of these conditions, medical researchers have identified the exact mutations that lead to disease; but in many more, they're still seeking answers. And without understanding the cause of a problem, it's pretty tough to find a cure.

We believe that a key enabling technology in this quest is a computer-aided design (CAD) program for genome editing, which our organization is launching this week at the Genome Project-write (GP-write) conference.

With this CAD program, medical researchers will be able to quickly design hundreds of different genomes with any combination of mutations and send the genetic code to a company that manufactures strings of DNA. Those fragments of synthesized DNA can then be sent to a foundry for assembly, and finally to a lab where the designed genomes can be tested in cells. Based on how the cells grow, researchers can use the CAD program to iterate with a new batch of redesigned genomes, sharing data for collaborative efforts. Enabling fast redesign of thousands of variants can only be achieved through automation; at that scale, researchers just might identify the combinations of mutations that are causing genetic diseases. This is the first critical R&D step toward finding cures.

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