Research and science fiction has been fascinated by brain-machine or brain-computer interfaces -- BCI for short -- since the early 1970s. Quite apart from cyborgs and the game industry, the most important application potentials lie in thought-controlled communication and movement support of physically disabled persons. Today BCIs stand on the threshold between laboratory prototypes and user-friendly real applications. Under the auspices of Graz University of Technology, a BCI road map has been developed for BCI research in the coming ten years for the Horizon 2020 EU funding programme. The road map gives a global perspective on BCI research, demonstrates potentials and challenges, and articulates the present gaps between current and future applications.
Market potential between man and machine
As Gernot Müller-Putz from the Institute of Knowledge Discovery at Graz University of Technology, an internationally recognised BCI expert who coordinated the development of the research road map, explains: "In specific terms the BCI road map serves as an orientation guide for research-funding authorities but also presents the research world with a qualified view about the state of affairs and BCI trends." BCIs have not only come a long way in research, they meanwhile have an enormous market potential -- and not only in the field of medicine. "We have identified some 150 companies worldwide concerned with BCI, from technology firms and the marketing sector to the aviation industry. Commercial applications in the entertainment industry are moving increasingly into the spotlight. Without them, BCIs would become unaffordable in the foreseeable future. Our Horizon 2020 road map sketches a path to the actual, affordable and user-friendly application of BCIs," says Müller-Putz.
BCI now and in the future
The international team behind the BCI road map illustrated its findings with fictive case studies. BCIs of the future can replace, restore, improve and extend bodily functions. "This begins with the ability to communicate, takes place by means of the stimulation of muscles and nerves and extends to enhanced attention capacity," summarises Müller-Putz. In the year 2025, there will be a broad range of brain-controlled applications which, according to the BCI road map, will be standard in medical treatment and therapy and also in monitoring personal health. Apart from brain signals, there will also be other bio-signals, like heartbeat or the electrical conductivity of the skin, which will play a role in the seamless and intuitive connection between man and machine.
Gernot Müller-Putz, together with his team at Graz University of Technology, is currently coordinating a three-year EU research project called "MoreGrasp" with the aim of developing an extremely adaptable neuroprosthetic gripper. If you can no longer grip an object, for example in paraplegia, many everyday tasks from cooking to cleaning your teeth are impossible. Suddenly you are continually reliant on help. Personalised neuroprosthetic grippers can be an enormous help and can give you back sizeable quality of life. The development is based on the fact that brainwave patterns change when you think of certain movements. The brain-computer interface measures these patterns and the neuroprosthetic device stimulates particular muscles in the arms and hands in a targeted way until they move.
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