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Brain + Machine = ?

Photo of electronic device
A wearable electronic device

Research conducted by professor Todd Coleman, who joined the Department of Bioengineering in 2011, has demonstrated that a flexible, skin-like device, mounted with tiny electronic components, can acquire electrical signals from the brain and skeletal muscles and potentially transmit the information wirelessly to an external computer. The development, published Aug. 12 in the journal Science, means that patients struggling with reduced motor or brain function, or research subjects, could be monitored in their natural environment outside the lab. For example, a person who struggles with epilepsy could wear the device to monitor for signs of oncoming seizures.

Photo of Todd Coleman
Bioengineering professor Todd Coleman

The work also opens up possibilities in the field of brain-machine interfaces for performance enhancement. Understanding the performance capabilities that could be achieved by an efficient union between brain and machine is a central theme of Coleman's research, and he envisions endless applications in areas such as military operations, gaming, education and consumer electronics. Until now, Coleman said, this brain-machine interface has been limited by the clunky, artificial coupling required by a vast array of electronic components and devices.

"The brain-machine interface paradigm is very exciting and I think it need not be limited to thinking about prosthetics or people with some type of motor deficit," said Coleman. "If you could evolve a very nice coupling [between a brain and a computer] that is remarkably natural and almost ubiquitous, I think there are applications that we haven't even imagined. That is what really fascinates me - the coupling between the biological system and the computer system."

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