Colorado State University Researchers Receive $1.2 Million Grant to Improve Brain-Computer Interface for People with Motor Impairments

A Colorado State University research team has obtained a five-year, $1.2 million grant to develop brain-computer interactions that could help people with severe motor impairments do something as simple as turn on a TV by changing what they are thinking about.

Chuck Anderson, a professor in the Computer Science department, serves as the principal investigator on the National Science Foundation grant. He’ll work with Professors Patricia Davies and Marla Roll in the Department of Occupational Therapy and Professor William Gavin in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies to test new brain-computer systems on people with impaired motor functions.

The interdisciplinary project is expected to result in new computational strategies to measure brain waves and mathematically quantify electrical activity of the brain. The new computer applications could help people control assistive devices such as wheelchairs.

Ultimately, researchers would like to create a system that an individual with disabilities could purchase and use in their home. The military has expressed interest in the technology for the rehabilitation of injured soldiers, and the computer game industry has interest in new types of game controllers.

“With one of the top occupational therapy programs in the country, Colorado State is uniquely positioned to conduct trials with people in their homes so we can truly gauge the effectiveness of these mathematical formulas,” Anderson said. “One technique we’ve used is to flash letters on a screen and record the brain wave associated with those letters. We want to improve user interfaces so people can more quickly select letters and type text messages.”

“A lot of this research is typically done in a laboratory, but we want feedback from people who can benefit from this technology in their homes,” Anderson said. “The unique aspect of our research team is that it brings together computer scientists, neuroscientists and occupational and rehabilitation scientists.”

To submit the grant proposal, university faculty and students spent the past two summers working with nine people with severe motor impairments using current Brain-Computer Interface (BCI) technology developed at Colorado State, said Davies, co-director with Gavin of the Brainwaves Research Lab. As many as eight faculty members, undergraduate and graduate students helped with the experiments.
The impairments were the result of injuries or progressive neurological disease processes, such as head injury, spinal cord injuries and multiple sclerosis.

“Volunteer participants and their caregivers welcomed our research team into their homes,” Davies said. “It is their willingness to participate in our preliminary research that helped us secure this large federal grant to further pursue this line of research.”

Students and faculty record brain waves by placing a cap with sensors on the volunteer, which then returns an electroencephalogram, or EEG. The sensors send a signal to a laptop so researchers can record the brain waves in real time.

Now the team is developing new ways of interpreting brain activity that was captured.

“Now we are writing computer programs that will sift through data and discover patterns that are present when people are doing more mental tasks,” Anderson said. “Signals will be different each time, depending on the task, but we have to find the patterns that are always there.”

And there are other challenges to obtaining accurate readings, Gavin said.

“We did not know if there would be too much electrical noise in the homes that would interfere with collecting clean EEG signals while the volunteers completed the experimental tasks,” Gavin said. “We had to consider the electrical equipment like respirators, hospital beds and wheelchairs in addition to all other types of electronics in homes, such as refrigerators, computers and televisions."

Even the noise-filtering issues were part of the learning process for researchers, Davies said. “We surveyed the participants on what the experience was like for them, which will contribute to the future development of the Brain-Computer Interface, taking into account the direct needs of people with disabilities,” she said.

Anderson, Gavin and Davies have collaborated on EEG research for about seven years with a goal to develop brain computer interface applications for people with severe disabilities. Davies and Roll, who joined the group two years ago, are experts in the use of assistive technology to enhance independent function in everyday activities for people with disabilities.