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June 2018 Pipeline Magazine

bmiBMIs (Brain Machine Interfaces) are one of the most promising fields of emergent technology, with many exciting and truly transformative potential uses. To many, BMI technology would be considered the stuff of science fiction, identified with Robocop or Star Trek: The Next Generation. In practice, basic forms of BMI technology have already been utilised in the medical field for a number of years, principally the cochlear implant, which provide a sense of sound to a person who is profoundly deaf or severely hard of hearing.

However, further applications in the medical field and in other areas—for example, as an entertainment device, for use in industry, for integration with automobiles or as a control mechanism—are becoming increasingly possible as the science and research develops.  

Defining BMI: a device that translates neuronal information into commands capable of external software or hardware, or that translates external commands into neuronal information.

BMI, sometimes referred to as a BCI (Brain-Computer Interface) has been under active research since the 1970s. Research at the University of California was the first to envision BMIs in their current form and was directly funded by the U.S. DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency). Since then there has been a huge amount of investment, primarily into the technology’s medical applications but also into the consumer and military applications.

Principal Goals of BMI Research

bmi research

BMIs in Use Today

BMIs, while a high-potential technology, are mostly in use only in medical settings. There have been limited forays into other uses such as in consumer entertainment devices or fatigue monitoring systems. The most common present uses of BMIs are outlined below:

EEGs: Despite the well-documented shortcomings in EEG (Electroencephalography) technology, it remains the ‘go-to’ technology for most BMI use cases. While EEG technology lacks the accuracy and clarity of signal of other technologies, it has one major advantage: its non-invasive nature. Most of the use cases outside the medical area are not transformative enough that they warrant the use of direct brain implantation. This is in part due to the risks associated with the more invasive approaches so, for the most part, EEG will remain popular. As medical research advances BMI technology further, it is likely that other non-invasive methods with higher accuracy will become available, or the risks associated with more invasive approaches will decrease.

Cochlear Implants: The cochlear implant is now a readily accepted medical device, which has been in use for a reasonably lengthy time. The first device was implanted in a patient in 1964, with the modern multichannel device being developed from the late 1970s. However, it was not until the early 2000s that these devices have been available through health insurers or public health systems. The interface is partially invasive, with an electrode connected to the cochlea nerve in the inner ear. The electrode then interfaces with this nerve, simulating the sensation of hearing. The success rate of cochlear implants is impressively high, with an average of 80 percent sentence understanding in audiology tests, compared with 10 percent sentence understanding for standard hearing aids.

For those who have additional damage to the auditory nerve or the cochlea, a device can be fitted which transmits feedback straight to the brainstem, called an ABI (Auditory Brainstem Implant). This system is much more difficult to fit, with more advanced brain surgery required. ABI devices are also more expensive than traditional cochlear implants, due to their more difficult implantation and lower volumes of production. There is also a smaller addressable market, due to the lower number of patients with damage to their cochlea or auditory nerve. The number of centres which can implant the device is also limited.

Visual Prosthetics: There have been experiments using BMIs for visual prostheses, which have seen varying degrees of success. Research is still ongoing.

Brain Stimulation: BMIs are being developed to enable the treatment of certain neurological conditions. Chief among these are ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), epilepsy and Alzheimer’s.

Limb Prosthetics: BMIs are being developed as an interface for controlling prosthetic limbs, by interpreting signals from the brain as a control interface. Current research is based on providing feedback to create the sensation of feeling in the prostheses.

Consumer Applications: Various new consumer applications are being created for BMIs. These range from headsets that can be used in the home for entertainment purposes to devices that aim to track and improve sleep.

Military Applications: One of the leading sources of research has been from the military, primarily funded in the U.S. by DARPA. This ranges from the initial research on BMI as a technology to approaches such as artificial telepathy, threat detection and performance enhancement. The uses are still, however, all experimental.

Trends in BMI:

Concentration Monitoring

In many industrial and military processes, fatigue or a loss of concentration can be a big risk. On a production line, a lapse in concentration could result in the production of hundreds of incorrect products or an accident. In the military, a lapse in concentration could result in the injury or death of service personnel. Another area where this problem is widespread is in the transport and logistics sector, where drivers often travel long distances with significant risks.

At present, concentration and fatigue monitoring are carried out via wearables using optical sensors, which can be inaccurate, or via a complex system of cameras, which can be expensive to install and maintain as well as monitor.

Therefore, strategies leveraging BMI technology—primarily EEG—to monitor and improve concentration are important and a potentially vast source of revenue.

This approach is already proving popular in the mining industry, where health and safety risks due to lapses in concentration are extreme. It is likely that this approach will rapidly become popular elsewhere.

Sleep Modification Tools

Sleep disorders affect many people and provide another use case in the medical field. The statistics for sleep disorders are stark: 50-70 million US adults have a sleep disorder, with drowsy driving responsible for 1,550 fatalities and 40,000 non-fatal injuries annually in the US.

As sleep disorders are such a wide-ranging problem, the area is of significant interest for research on improvements. BMIs are one potential solution for this issue. BMI devices using EEG can be leveraged to accurately map sleep status and identify ways to alter sleep, primarily through the use of targeted biofeedback. This is where music is used to alter the sleep state into a more restful one. One example of just such a device is the Dreem headband.

Future Outlook: It is forecast that global hardware sales revenue from BMIs will reach $18.9 billion per annum by 2027, up from an estimated $2.4 billion in 2018.

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