It's a familiar sensation. After sitting at a computer for the entire day, I begin to feel a disturbing twinge in my wrist and elbow. Visions of carpal tunnel syndrome begin to dance in my head.
I have a fantasy that someday we'll be able to use our computers without the irritation of typing and mouse clicking, or the doubtful mercy of voice-recognition software. Surely I could be much more productive if I could achieve some sort of psychic link with my computer. It's a pretty common dream, I know. In fact, there's a whole field of study dedicated to it.
For many of us, the idea of direct brain-to-computer interface (BCI) conjures up images of Frankenstein and The Twilight Zone. A giant helmet of needles sticking through the skull, say, or the implantation of microchips directly into the brain. Fortunately, these ideas are difficult to develop. The National Institutes of Health has a few things to say about sticking bits of silicon into people's heads, even for the sake of research that would save us from the drudgery of typing.
As usual, reality is less gothic and more efficient. In fact, the technology for basic BCI has been around since before World War II. EEG, the electroencephalograph, can sense brain waves through electrodes stuck to a person's skull with a hair-gel-like paste. Historically this has been used for detecting a person's state of consciousness-during sleep research, for example. But the rise of the computer era brought with it a whole new world of applications.
We're all a little touchy about our brains. Enter the term "brainwaves" into a search engine and you get a multitude of pages on mind control and Cold War era Soviet plots. But the more realistic, not to mention functional, application of brainwave research works the other way around-people using their brain waves to control computers.
One of the most promising types of brainwaves for researchers working on BCI are Mu rhythms, generated when neurons in the brain fire simultaneously, creating large oscillations. "Mu waves are neat," says Dr. Jaime Pineda, "because with a little practice, you can learn to control them volitionally."
Pineda's lab, the Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory at UCSD, became interested in BCI while looking into Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ASL), commonly referred to as Lou Gehrig's disease, a progressive neurological condition that destroys the neurons of the upper spinal cord, but not the brain itself. In its end stages, ASL renders a victim trapped in his own body, completely paralyzed but cognitively intact and cognizant of their surroundings.
"So, improved brain-computer interface has obvious implications for these patients," says Pineda. Able to control a computer through Mu rhythms, an individual would be able to speak using the computer as a word generator, or to have some control over their own mobility.
But that might be years away. What can you do now if you can control your Mu rhythms? Well, if you are hooked up to the Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory's EEG, you can play computer games. The researchers at the lab have built a version of the old game Pong, where a subject can control a paddle and catch the bouncing cursor by manipulating their own brainwaves.
"It takes about four to six hours to learn," says Dr. Pineda. "But it's hard to describe how the learning process works. It's like learning to ride a bike-trying to explain it too much doesn't help. You learn to do it just by doing it."
This seemed pretty cool to me. In the first place, it has obvious implications for the gaming industry. I could picture a room filled with hundreds of gamers each wearing an EEG cap-a sort of swim cap with hundreds of wires sprouting from it, and concentrating fixedly on Pong.
But the Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory has bigger fish to fry. If you can learn to control the cursor using only your brainwaves, then what affect, if any, does it have on your brain? This question is of special interest because Mu rhythms are associated with mirror neurons, a type of cell in the brain that's related to comprehending action, whether or not you are performing that action yourself.
"If I see you doing something, I am doing it in my brain," Pineda says. "That's similar to the principle on which the game Pong was based. So, is learning to play the game by controlling your Mu rhythms affecting how you are comprehending actions?"
To find out, Pineda assembled two groups of students, those who'd learned to play Pong and those who hadn't. He gave both groups videos of people miming actions. Easy ones, such as hammering a nail with an invisible hammer, or driving an imaginary car were figured out by both groups of subjects equally well. More complicated mimed actions were easier for the students who had learned to play Pong-they were better at comprehending other people's actions. So it seemed that students more adept at controlling their Mu rhythms had strengthened their mirror neurons in the process.
Why is this interesting? Well, children with autism have deficient mirror neurons. While other peoples' mirror neurons are active whether they do a task or just watch someone else do it, autistics' mirror neurons only activate when they themselves are doing the task-their neurons don't empathize with other peoples'.
Therefore, if mirror neurons can be strengthened by learning to control the Mu rhythms, could there be a possible treatment for autistics in encouraging them to learn to control these neurons?
The DCL has been studying a population of autistic children, helping them practice Mu rhythm controlling for half an hour, three times a week for 10 weeks. The prospects seemed good, and expectations were high. But at the five week mark, the children had shown little improvement.
Still Pineda is optimistic. The concept is sound. "It could be that five weeks wasn't long enough," he says. "That was only our preliminary data." Final data is expected soon.
I asked if I could check back in if the new data is more successful. He laughed. "Well, sure." He said. "But, you know, if we've developed a successful new treatment for autism, we're going to be calling The New York Times, too."