The University of California (UC) system is extremely inventive and one of the top patenting Universities in the United States, which is why recently we decided to include them in our Companies We Follow series. See University of California Improves Diagnosis, Treatment of Arthritis. In that article Steve Brachmann explained that UC has seen patent applications publish for a number of interesting technologies, including new diagnostics and treatments for arthritis, as well as methods of making red-blood cell particles, methods of tissue generation and nanowire mesh for solar fuel generators.
Also profiled was an interesting patent application — United States Patent Application 20130127708 — titled Cell-phone based wireless and mobile brain-machine interface, which was published on May 27, 2013. In reading the aforementioned article about UC patenting I decided this patent application needed separate treatment because the patent application explains that the innovation could be used to “detect abnormalities and transfer the information through cell-phone network…” Sounds almost like the plot for a science fiction movie! But discussion of uses, movie plots and potential ability to monitor brain activity puts the cart before the horse. Let’s take a step back and look at the technology.
The ‘708 patent application explains that various brain-machine interfaces are known a variety of different applications. For example, brain-machine interfaces are known to exist for use in gaming. Known brain-computer interfaces, however, require either a proprietary data logger or a processor to perform online electroencephalogram (EEG) analysis. “An electroencephalogram (EEG) is a test that measures and records the electrical activity of your brain.” See WebMD. The patent application explains that this is disadvantageous because existing EEG systems are bulky and tethered, which means such systems are not intended for use in portable applications.
Thus, the patent application explains that the innovation covered relates to techniques, systems and an apparatus for implementing a mobile and wireless brain-computer interface (BCI) based on a customized EEG. BCIs, the application explains, provide a new interface for users suffering from motor disabilities to control assistive devices such as wheelchairs.
In the UC invention, BCI systems can acquire EEG signals from the human brain and translate them into digital commands which can be recognized and processed on a computer or computers using advanced algorithms.
In one particular embodiment the UC invention can integrate a wearable and wireless EEG system with a mobile phone to implement an steady-state visual evoked potential-based BCI system. Steady-state visual evoked potential (or SSVEP) may refer to the electrical response of the brain to the flickering visual stimulus at a repetition rate higher than 6 Hz.
For example, the system can include a four-channel biosignal acquisition/amplification module, a wireless transmission module and a Bluetooth-enable cell phone. In one application, the wearers’ EEG was used to directly make a phone call. Real-time data processing was implemented and carried out on a regular cell phone. In a normal office environment, an average information transfer rate (ITR) of 28.47 bits/min was obtained from ten healthy subjects.
Various useful and tangible applications are possible. For example, the invention can be used for gaming on cell phones, which seems like a logical extension of current brain-machine interfaces. Perhaps far more exciting, however, is the potential to utilize the invention for biomedical information monitoring and abnormality warning system in clinical research, as well as in neurology, psychiatry, gerontology, and rehabilitation medicine. In these biomedical implementations cell phones could continuously monitor the users’ physiological data and detect abnormalities and transfer the information through cell-phone network to a healthcare server. This could provoke an alert sent to healthcare providers about the patient’s physical, mental or even cognitive status, as well as their geometrical locations from any time, any place and anywhere.
If you let your Sci-fi mind run wild you can envision all kinds of potential uses for a technology capable of monitoring brain function to detect abnormalities. Could it, for example, know when someone is about to do something illegal or before someone might engage in self destructive behavior? As the boundaries of science and technology continue to get pushed into new realms you can certainly bet that there will be a great many technologies that will provoke significant ethical debate.