The brain-computer interface: thinking through augmentative and alternative communication devices

The brain-computer interface: thinking through augmentative and alternative communication devices

Neuroscientist Jonathan Brumberg was awarded a New Century Scholars Research Grant by the American Speech Language-Hearing Foundation to develop and test a brain-computer interface (BCI) that will directly control commercially available augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) devices for individuals with profound speech and motor disorders.

AAC devices, such as speech-generating devices, are widely used by those who would otherwise be unable to verbally communicate, including those who can only move their eyes. However, some individuals cannot even voluntarily move their eyes because of neurogenerative disorders such as advanced amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), brain trauma or brainstem stroke, said Brumberg, assistant professor of speech-language-hearing.

The BCI under development by Brumberg, who holds appointments in the speech-language-hearing department and electrical engineering and computer science, records the electrical activity of the brain from electrodes placed on the scalp and then uses those signals to directly interact with communication devices.

“If we’re able to elicit set patterns of activity, as long as the patterns are reliable, we can translate them into computer control signals—something that could select letters or symbols on a screen or even move a mouse cursor and click,” Brumberg said.

With ALS, said Brumberg, the disease progresses from being able to walk and talk to being con ned to a wheelchair and often losing the ability to speak.

Brumberg explained that they plan to teach individuals with ALS who are already using an AAC device how to use a BCI to control it while they still have enough cognitive ability and attention. This way they don’t have to learn something completely new if and when they lose their remaining motor activity.

“We want to make sure that we’re using their AAC device with the BCI because the BCI is hard enough to learn without learning a whole new communication system.”

The study, which will have four participants with neuromotor impairment, will quantify the effectiveness of the integrated BCI-AAC device over an eight-week training period and identify both longitudinal performance and what, if any, neurological changes occur from learning how to control the BCI-AAC device.

The findings of this study will support Brumberg’s long-term goal of translating advances in BCI technology to clinical practice, including the adoption of BCI as an input access by manufacturers of AAC systems.