A group of students and faculty have been playing a lot of mind games.
In an interdisciplinary project that brings together electrical and computer engineering and neuroscience, the research group is working on technology that will allow users to control a computer application using only their own brainwaves.
“It’s awesome being able to do something extraordinary with your mind, especially when minds weren’t really meant to be trained like this,” says Tony Lorence ’13, an electrical and computer engineering major.”The patterns of brainwaves we are recording were just signals that appeared simply because of regular brain usage. But once we found them, we were able to train ourselves (and the machine learning from the software) how to perform better at a given task.”
The team also includes electrical and computer engineering major David Salter ’12 and neuroscience majors Christopher Angeloni ’12 and Victoria Corbit ’13. Yih-Choung Yu, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, and Lisa Gabel, assistant professor of psychology, serve as faculty mentors. The project is funded through a faculty innovation grant from the Office of the Provost.
The field of brain-computer interface (BCI) technology has the potential to treat neurological diseases such as ALS, stroke, and paralysis, and improve the lives of people who have such conditions.
The team has created a memory card game, the type where players lift up cards, two at a time, from a grid of face-down cards, trying to match the paired cards together. The difference from the simple children’s version is that this one is virtual and controlled directly by thought.
Potentially, a memory game like this could be used to help train patients to use other BCI communication technology. As part of their research, the group visited the Wadsworth Center in Albany, N.Y., one of the world’s leading research facilities in the field of brain-computer interface.
The group learned about various BCI systems that the Wadsworth Center has developed, from simple up-down cursor movement, to playing the video game Doom, to selecting targets in a 3D environment. In all of these activities, the person controlling the game doesn’t use a controller or joystick—only their own thoughts.
The visit to the center also helped the students see the gap between the amazing technological capacity that is possible with BCI and its affordability and accessibility. The average patient who might benefit from BCI is often unable to afford the high cost of the technology.
The goal of the BCI project is to provide a starting point for future research at Lafayette.
“We all came in with no specific experience in BCI and had to figure out how to get unfamiliar equipment and programs to work together. Our work will hopefully be just a launching point for later Lafayette students to come in and start doing their own research,” says Salter.
The project has seen a lot of success moving in that direction. The team presented its research at the Biomedical Engineering Society’s annual meeting and the College received a $142,000 National Science Foundation grant to purchase a biopotential measurement system, which will help receive brain waves more precisely and effectively.
“There are countless challenges in neural science and engineering that rely on a strong collaboration between neuroscientists and engineers to solve the problems,” says Yu. “This grant provides us with the finances needed to purchase a state-of-art system that could strengthen our interdisciplinary research collaboration.”
For the students, this cross-discipline collaboration has been a valuable learning experience.
“I’ve had to opportunity to learn a lot about neuroscience and how to conduct scientific research that I would not have learned in my normal class schedule,” says Salter.