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Groundbreaking brain-computer interface puts users in the driver's seat

In a remarkable breakthrough that blurs the lines between science fiction and reality, engineers at The University of Texas at Austin have developed a brain-computer interface that enables users to control complex tasks, such as playing a racing video game, using only their brains. This cutting-edge technology not only pushes the boundaries of what's possible but also holds immense promise for improving the lives of people with motor disabilities.



The research, published in PNAS Nexus, revolves around a system that allows users to wear a cap fitted with electrodes that measure electrical signals from the brain. These signals are then interpreted by a decoder, which translates the information into game actions, effectively enabling users to control a virtual car through sheer brainpower.

What sets this brain-computer interface apart, however, is its incorporation of machine learning capabilities, making it a true one-size-fits-all solution. Traditionally, these devices have required extensive calibration for each individual user, as every brain is unique, whether for healthy or disabled individuals. This calibration process has been a significant hurdle to mainstream adoption, but the UT Austin researchers have overcome this challenge with their innovative approach.

"When we think about this in a clinical setting, this technology will make it so we won't need a specialized team to do this calibration process, which is long and tedious," said Satyam Kumar, a graduate student in the lab of José del R. Millán, a professor in the Cockrell School of Engineering's Chandra Family Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Dell Medical School's Department of Neurology. "It will be much faster to move from patient to patient."

The researchers' work on brain-computer interfaces aims to help users guide and strengthen their neural plasticity, the brain's ability to change, grow, and reorganize over time. These experiments are designed to improve brain function for patients and use the devices controlled by brain-computer interfaces to make their lives easier.

In the study, subjects were tasked with not only controlling a car racing game like Mario Kart but also a simpler task of balancing the left and right sides of a digital bar. An expert was trained to develop a "decoder" for the simpler bar task, which served as a base for the other users, eliminating the need for individual calibration.

The decoder worked so well that subjects could be trained simultaneously for the bar game and the more complicated car racing game, which required thinking several steps ahead to make turns.

"On the one hand, we want to translate the BCI to the clinical realm to help people with disabilities; on the other, we need to improve our technology to make it easier to use so that the impact for these people with disabilities is stronger," Millán said.

While this research used subjects without motor impairments, the team plans to test the technology on individuals with motor impairments to apply it in clinical settings. The researchers have already demonstrated potential applications, such as controlling a wheelchair and rehabilitation robots for the hand and arm, at the recent South by Southwest Conference and Festivals.

"The point of this technology is to help people, help them in their everyday lives," Millán said. "We'll continue down this path wherever it takes us in the pursuit of helping people."

As the world eagerly anticipates the next chapter in this groundbreaking research, the UT Austin team's brain-computer interface stands as a testament to the power of innovation and the boundless potential of human-machine collaboration. With their unwavering commitment to pushing the boundaries of what's possible, these researchers are paving the way for a future where individuals with motor disabilities can regain control and independence, unleashing a new era of empowerment and hope.

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