Wearable Brain Scanner Tells Your Computer When You're Overwhelmed

Brain-computer interface adjusts to your changing cognitive state

2 min read
Wearable Brain Scanner Tells Your Computer When You're Overwhelmed

Researchers at MIT are developing a wearable, portable brain monitor that tells a computer when its user is mentally overwhelmed. Using a brain imaging tool called functional near-infrared spectroscopy, or fNIRS, the system detects when a person is multitasking and tells the computer to adjust its interface to make things easier. The technology could take a load off the minds of air traffic controllers and other workers who must constantly perform at a high level, regardless of changes in cognitive state. 

Functional NIRS detects brain activity by using light to scan for changes in blood hemoglobin concentrations. The technology can sense not only that someone may be multitasking, but can also distinguish between different kinds of multitasking. Erin Treacy Solovey, a computer science postdoc at MIT, and her colleagues have been testing the tool using virtual robots designed to adapt to the mental state of their human controller. In the experiments, volunteers strap on fNIRS headgear and attempt to guide two robots through a maze simultaneously--a tough task. The fNIRS sensors transmit information about the volunteer's changing mental state to the robots. When the robots sense that the volunteer is having to simultaneously focus attention on two problems, they take on more of the navigation themselves.

The researchers found that the system successfully reduced the human workload. They named the system Brainput and presented the results of the experiment last week at the Computer Human Interaction Conference in Austin, Texas.

Other brain sensing tools are in development, including electroencephalography (EEG), which relies on electrodes attached to the head, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which uses magnetic fields to measure blood flow in the brain that telegraphs brain activity; magnetoencephalography (MEG), which detects the magnetic fields generated by clusters of thousands of neurons; and even ultrasound transducers, which track blood flow. Applying these sensors to brain-computer interface systems is a field that is growing, with applications in gaming, telecommunications, and in the treatment of medical conditions such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). But all of these technologies have practical limitations. NIRS, for example, has been shown to have a low data-transmission rate.

Photo credit: Matthew Modoono

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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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