Fixing the Brain-Computer Interface

Researchers are addressing the sizable population for whom BCI doesn't work

3 min read

16 June 2011—Brain-computer interface (BCI) technology, which allows users to perform basic computer tasks through brain activity alone, has quickly become one of the most promising areas of neuroscience. Researchers have focused primarily on clinical applications, such as communication programs for patients with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and other medical conditions that prohibit speaking and writing, and BCI technology clearly has potential for both gaming and telecommunications as well.

But BCIs have a big problem. For reasons that are not entirely clear, as much as 20 to 30 percent of people who try BCI systems can’t get them to work. Until recently, scientists simply excluded the "nonperformers" from their studies. This approach made sense when the technology was new—researchers had to establish how BCI works, and including nonperformers would have skewed the results. But now that the proof-of-concept phase is over, a growing number of researchers are beginning to tackle the usability issue.

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This CAD Program Can Design New Organisms

Genetic engineers have a powerful new tool to write and edit DNA code

11 min read
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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