Neurofeedback: The First Brain-Computer Interface

by Siegfried Othmer | March 9th, 2015

by Siegfried Othmer, PhD

Neurofeedback: The First Brain-Computer InterfaceBrain Computer Interfaces (BCI) are a relatively new fascination in the neurosciences, and the payoff in research has already been significant. By tracking the activity of a small number of neurons in the motor cortex, for example, the actual movement of an arm to direct the cursor on a screen can be fairly emulated by a robot arm that receives its instructions from the tracking electronics. Scientists had to make the ‘translation’ from the neural firing streams into instructions for movement, and they were able to do so successfully based on the prior observations. This is the work of Miguel Nicolelis and his team.

During the course of the above research, it was observed that the trained monkey, Aurora, who had been faithfully chasing the moving dot on the screen with his cursor, at one point just stopped moving his arm. The robot arm, however, kept moving the cursor to catch up with the moving dot. All Aurora had to do was to think about moving the cursor and the robot arm would execute the command. He did not have to actually move his arm.

As Nicolelis said, at that moment he realized that “the brain had been freed from the body.”  But was he really the first to have demonstrated that ‘the brain could be freed from the body’ in this sense? Indeed not. Let me take you back more than forty years into the laboratory of M. Barry Sterman at the Sepulveda Veterans’ Administration Hospital in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles.

Sterman and his research associate, Wanda Wyrwicka, a neurobiologist from Poland, had trained cats to obtain access to food in a manner that was controlled by events occurring in their brains. The cats had to learn that they needed to remain motorically still in order for food to appear. Under these conditions, bursts of activity would occur episodically in their brains, and these were used to trigger the food reward.

The cats were hungry, so they did what they could to obtain food, which was basically to adopt a posture of quietly watching and waiting at the food dish. What they did not know about, we assume, was the occasional bursting activity in their brains that took place under these conditions. At one point in the course of this research, the natural question was raised, what happens when you stop offering food? How is the cat going to react?

Invariably, the trained cat massively increased the rate of bursting in a vain effort to make food appear. This makes it very clear that the bursting activity had come under the active control of the cat’s brain, once the connection with food reward had been recognized. The cat, meanwhile, knows nothing about these goings-on in its brain. The cat’s brain activity was critical in the path of food delivery, and the cat surely had no reason to know that. In this regard, then, the cat’s brain had been ‘freed from the body.’ There was no overt motor activity involved in the facilitation of food delivery. On the contrary, it was the absence of any motor activity throughout that was the key.

Simply by being motorically still, the cat had contributed all it could to the project of making food appear. The rest had to be done by the cat’s brain in a manner that was surely entirely out of the cat’s awareness and control.

The above experiment made apparent a separation here not only between the brain and the body (i.e., the body in the sense of voluntary motor control), but also between the voluntary and autonomic aspects of motor control. The autonomic aspects of motor control determine the ‘tone’ of the voluntary motor system, its poise and action-readiness. This is the target of neurofeedback, whereas the work in brain-computer interfaces has concerned itself mostly with the voluntary motor system.

The early cat research, in addition to launching much of the field of neurofeedback as we know it today, also led to initiatives in the use of the EEG to control the flight of airplanes and helicopters. Many years ago, one enterprising engineer used a simple EEG device to control his sailboat in the Chesapeake Bay, at times unnerving his guests with his no-hands control.

In Europe, meanwhile, the EEG was used to allow locked-in patients (who lacked any control over their voluntary motor system) to communicate with the outside world one letter at a time. Each letter had to be selected in turn with a sequence A/B decisions. This was a painfully slow process, but then these people had nothing else to do. In fact they made it clear that the ability to communicate was essential to their state of well-being.

Nicolelis speaks of the moment when Aurora stopped using his arm as the crowning event of his scientific work, unlikely to be equalled by anything in the rest of his career. The significance of his findings is attested to by the fact that world is now enchanted with this report. His videos have been viewed by many on YouTube.

Matters must have been much the same when Sterman and Wyrwicka first witnessed the cat’s brain pounding out those EEG bursts in a vain attempt to make food appear. In this case, however, the joy of discovery was entirely their own. At the time the world was not prepared to appreciate the implications of what they had done.

Siegfried Othmer, PhD

One Response to “Neurofeedback: The First Brain-Computer Interface”

  1. adam says:

    In the early 1980’s I was a graduate student in psychology at the University of Cape Town in South Africa when I came across the work of Barry Sterman and was inspired to do my masters thesis on ‘EEG biofeedback for the control of epilepsy’. To cut a long story short, I did the literature review and we built a ‘neurofeedback machine’. It comprised a room full of equipment, and amazingly, it worked! Unfortunately we couldn’t satisfy the examiners that it was technically sound, and I ended getting my masters by standardising a test of premorbid intelligence. A few years ago I ‘rediscovered’ the field of ‘EEG biofeedback’ and now have a complete neurofeedback setup that fits into a small briefcase! Things have changed radically since I first started looking at the field some 35 years ago, but I still think it is as exciting today as it was back then. The potential of neurofeedback to improve the functioning, and the lives, of people remains huge, and I look forward to it taking its place as an invaluable tool in the quest to alleviate suffering and improve human happiness and fulfillment, now and in the future.

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