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Neurons At Work
Neurons are the information-processing units of the brain responsible for receiving and transmitting information. It is estimated that an average human brain contains about 85 billion neurons. Each part of the neuron plays a role in the communication of information throughout the body.

At a g.tec-sponsored Brain-Computer Interface (BCI) workshop at the National Institute of Aerospace in Hampton, Va., volunteers were able to spell out words on a computer screen using using a g.tec GAMMAcap and a (P300) Spelling System. At NASA Langley, BCI technology is used to detect when users, typically pilots and air traffic controllers, are in a state where mistakes are more likely.
Credit: NASA/Gary Banziger

Every time we think, move, feel or remember something, our neurons are at work. According to "Secret Worlds: Brain," by Richard Walker, that work is carried out by small electric signals that zip from neuron to neuron as fast as 250 miles per hour.

Imagine the possibilities of a device that uses those electrical signals to externally control computers, smartphones, or even vehicles. It’s not just science fiction. It’s reality.

Chad Stephens and Alan Pope use Brain-Computer Interface (BCI) technology for their research efforts at NASA's Langley Research Center. Pope’s research helped to develop a program called Human Error Management, which examines the internal and external reasons for human error. Stephens works with researchers in the Crew Systems and Aviation Operations Branch at NASA Langley who focus on Human-Machine Integration and the application of neuroscience and psychophysiological measures.

In October, Pope and Stephens hosted a g.tec-sponsored BCI workshop, which was held at the National Institute of Aerospace (NIA). More than 20 guests from NASA Langley, the NIA, and local universities were in attendance.

"Witnessing the ability of EEG (electroencephalography)-based computer control is captivating and inspiring,” Stephens said. “It also breaks down science fiction perceptions of this technology."

They wanted workshop participants to experience cutting edge BCI technology and to consider potentially innovative applications of BCI to machines, computers, and mobile devices.

g.tec GAMMAcap.

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Cornelia Altenbuchner, a phD student at the National Institute of Aerospace, volunteered to use a g.tec GAMMAcap to spell out words using only her mind at a Brain-Computer Interface Workshop. Credit: NASA/Sean Smith

g.tec GAMMAcap.

Click to enlarge

Chad Stephens uses Brain-Computer Interface (BCI) technology for his research efforts at NASA’s Langley Research Center. Here, he is using a dry electrode g.tec GAMMAcap and the P300 Spelling System to communicate. Credit:NASA/Sean Smith

Volunteers at the workshop took part in a "hands-off" demonstration using a g.tec GAMMAcap and a (P300) Spelling System. They focused their attention toward a computer screen, which displayed a matrix of flashing letters. By focusing on a specific letter within the matrix, they were able to spell out words.

Without ever lifting a finger, one volunteer spelled, "cloud." Another spelled out "brain."

Speaker Dr. Brendan Allison, of the University of California, San Diego, who performs BCI workshops for g.tec, explained that BCI is a system that sends messages or commands. The P300 Speller system uses a GAMMAcap electrode configuration, which is spread across the scalp of the user to measure general brain activity.

Rather than writing information to the brain, it reads brain activity directly from the non-invasive electrodes on the cap.

The technique demonstrated at the workshop uses Steady State Visually Evoked Potentials (SSVEP), which are brain signals that are natural responses to visual stimulation at specific frequencies. Electrodes mounted in the GAMMAcap pick up those signals. According to Allison, SSVEP has good accuracy with minimal training required.

Using g.tec-developed BCI applications, users can spell, draw and play games using the GAMMAcap. Using a program called intendiX-SOCI, brain signals are detected with an accuracy of 98 percent.

This technique has been used to help Alzheimer’s patients concentrate, and it has helped to improve neurological feedback in people with cognitive disabilities.

Stephens and Pope have used the BCI systems to detect when users, typically pilots and air traffic controllers, are in a state where mistakes are more likely.

At Langley, Stephens employs the NASA LaRC Multi-Attribute Test Battery (MATB) software, originally developed by Ray Comstock at NASA Langley and Ruth Arnegard of Old Dominion University to measure a human's reaction to handling four tasks at once.

"The fundamental science we are conducting, involving the MATB-II and monitoring of an individual's brain waves to determine task engagement, informs many areas of human-machine interaction," Stephens said. “In aviation, the application is flight deck design, but this understanding extends to computer interfaces for many types of systems."

Pope and a colleague at NASA Langley, Lance Prinzel, used their BCI know-how to invent a Zeroing Out Negative Effects (ZONE) biofeedback training aid, a spinoff of their efforts with pilots, linking the training with work done by sports psychologists to improve a golfer’s game.

While neither Pope nor Prinzel is advocating that NASA should take up golf, Pope adds, "One of the objectives to spinoffs is commercialization. That's finding an interested party who wants to license the patent and market a device like this."

With all BCI technology, it’s about how different users see the technology being applied … and then putting neurons to work.

By: Denise Lineberry

The Researcher News
NASA Langley Research Center
Editor & Curator: Denise Lineberry
Executive Editor & Responsible NASA Official: Rob Wyman