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Monitoring Your Brain Waves

Fri, 03/04/2011 - 5:25am
by David Mantey, Editor, Product Design & Development

Escaping the sub-zero weather in Wisconsin is enough to make the convention experience worthy of the time, effort, and expense. I arrived in Anaheim and walked off of the plane a sweaty mess covered in jackets, multiple layers, and gloves engineered for the Arctic. The ability to take a mid-winter stroll to the Medical Device & Manufacturing conference and exhibition without fear of frostbite and numbing limbs was refreshing; however, meeting with Julien Penders, program manager of Body Area Networks for imec, was an equally exhilarating experience.

This year, imec and the Holst Centre, an independent, open-innovation R&D center, demonstrated an electroencephalogram (EEG) headset that was compatible with dry electrodes, easy to use, and featured ultra-low power electronics. Imec’s technologies for the wireless EEG system enabled continuous ambulatory monitoring.

What does this mean? Actually, it has a number of implications that are sure to resonate in many different ways. The EEG prototype system is an unobtrusive, if odd-looking, hat that starts recording your brain waves. My father recently required a sleep study to test for sleep apnea, so the device hits close to home both because of cost and user experience.

Once the user puts on the prototype, it begins recording brain waves with very low set-up time. It’s a home solution that doesn’t involve a nurse who brings her personal life to work with her or the many pads and wires that are attached to your person.

“Imagine if you could do all of that at home,” said Penders. “Screenings are usually difficult and expensive – and a lot is done for nothing.”

The prototype is currently going through clinical studies in epilepsy patients to become a tool to predict seizures. As I’m writing this in the Dallas/Fort Worth airport, a man collapsed and began to seize. It was spooky, but a reminder of the importance such a prototype holds. Doctors were paged and it appears that he will be fine, but imagine if such a circumstance could not only be predicted, but prevented.

According to other studies discussed by Penders, brain wave monitoring and analysis will have a great influence in entertainment and communication industries as well.

As a writer with frequent interviews to transcribe and notes to decipher – I have the penmanship of a four-year-old child – one study stood out in particular: brain typing. Right now, clinical subjects have been able to type one letter every 10 to 15 seconds based on brain wave analysis. As the algorithms and signal quality from the prototype become more powerful, the elapsed time will only improve. Sure, I may have to check my tangent riddled mind during one-on-one interviews, but I’ll eagerly volunteer as a test subject if it helps separate me from my pen, paper, and digital recorder.

Consider the newly capable communication from paralyzed patients and otherwise affected humans who long for a voice. Have you ever read Jean-Dominique Bauby’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly? He wrote the masterpiece with a series of memorized blinks. I couldn’t imagine memorizing a manuscript, chapter by chapter, with a series of blinks. Impressive and, hopefully, unnecessary in the future. 

Further research is currently performed for the gaming industry. Brain wave monitoring is used to measure the level of concentration and model video game complexity based on stress levels from subjects playing the game. If only this was available during childhood Street Fighter tournaments, the readings would be off the charts. I may have also had the ability to check the stress before the follicles started falling in my early 20s.

My first impression was a 1984 scenario filled with cubes and workers strapped in to EEG headsets. I pictured a subtle to severe shock from the ergonomic chair if the worker’s concentration levels dipped below the company mandated level.

Imec and the Holst Centre are able to push forward with new technology because of their expertise and set of research groups that work under the Human Prosperous Program (Human++) umbrella. According to Penders, the industry can access the technology by joining the Human++ program as a research partner or with licensing agreements for further product development.

“We cannot focus on a single application and we don’t want to push the technology through,” Penders said. “We take a platform approach that can be tailored to specific needs. It is the responsibility of our partners to bring the technology to market.”

Here’s to expedient delivery on brain typing, rendering my methods for scribing this column obsolete.

What else could we do with brain wave monitoring? Too intrusive? Or life-improving technology? Email david.mantey@advantagemedia.com.

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