How BCIs Can Be Used To Help People With Physical Disabilities
Can we finally live in a world where people with physical disabilities are no longer limited due to their condition?
Note: If you haven’t already checked out my article on how Brain-Computer Interfaces work, read it here. It’ll help you understand this article better!
15% of the global population experience some form of disability. So statistically speaking, we all know someone or at least have seen someone challenged with some form of physical disability, whether it’s a form of mobility impairment, visual impairment, or even a loss of hearing.
But, why is it that these disabilities exist? Why may someone not be able to see, not have an arm, or not get out of bed? Well, it can be because of two things:
- Hereditary disorder: A result of inheriting specific genes from a parent which has led to a physical disability
- Acquired throughout lifetime: This can be due to environmental factors or as a result of severe injuries/diseases
People with such challenges often feel a lack of independence and feel as if they are unable to live their life fully. Additionally, these people may suffer from depression or social isolation as a result of their physical limitations, and even financial instability because of it. And we can start to imagine the ‘by-products’ which come with these disabilities and how difficult it can be to be one of those 110–190 million people who may go through this on a daily basis.
So what can we do to make their lives easier? Make them feel more independent rather than dependent? Help them feel like they can ‘fully’ live their lives?
Well, thanks to recent advancements in Brain-Computer Interface (BCI) technology, BCIs are diminishing the limitations of the physically disabled, enabling them to feel as if they now can ‘fully’ live their life. And this is being done currently being done to restore vision, communicate with friends and family, improve and enhance motor function and skill, as well as controlling prosthetic limbs just like a regular one.
Believe it or not, but it’s possible to restore vision using BCIs, this is known as Visual Neural Prostheses, and works is by recreating and directly stimulating the visual pathway of neurons in the brain, in accordance to what would’ve been seen with perfect vision. Usually, when light is reflected onto the retina of your eye, what you see is converted to neural electrical activity through the photoreceptor cells, which is then sent to the visual cortex of the brain.
Visual Neural Prostheses is based on this process and aims to mimic the electric neural activity which is delivered to the visual cortex. This is done by capturing visual data from a camera, translating it to electrical signals, and using that to stimulate the visual cortex accordingly, thus allowing for the ability to see again.
Visual Neural Prostheses is quite a unique way of treating blindness, as instead of targetting the eye, it is focused on stimulating the brain. And research has gone to show that this method of stimulation has a variety of applications; not limited to restoring vision. As for, Nathan Copeland, a Brazilian man who was paralyzed following a severe car accident, this form of stimulation has helped him regain his sense of touch.
Although so far we’ve only been able to restore vision partially, results have proved that restoring vision with the help of BCIs is possible and that the further development of BCIs can hopefully enable full vision restoration.
Prosthetic Limbs (Neuroprosthesis)
Current bionic prosthetics work by using myoelectric control signals, these are motor action potentials, which are electrical impulses in the muscles that lead to the contraction of muscle fibres in the body, however this method is only limited to only those with enough control points so that they can interface with the electromyogram (EMG) electrodes, for example, in the case of trying to use a bionic arm, if the patient has a high-level of amputation, such as shoulder disarticulation, it does not provide enough control points to interface with the EMG electrodes, so there won’t be sufficient signals to control the movement of the bionic arm, or require the use of unwieldy cables and switch-operated systems to control their bionic arm.
By using BCIs, we can overcome the limitations of EMG based prosthetics and achieve a much more natural way to operate them as it takes signals from the brain directly rather than the muscles leading the prosthetic itself.
This can be done invasively (ECoG) or non-invasively (EEG), depending on the patient’s needs. Using electrodes, electrical signals are picked up from the differences in voltage between the placement of a minimum of two electrodes.
This data is processed and often passed through a trained machine learning model to accurately predict the patient’s desired action - which is then relayed to the feedback device (in our case, the prosthetic limb) to carry out the action.
So, can we finally live in a world where people with physical disabilities are no longer limited due to their condition?
Yes, I’d like to believe so. The world of Brain-Computer Interfaces is still quite young, and with accelerated research and development, we can only expect things to get better from here, to the point where the difference between people with physical disabilities, and those without, will be indistinguishable.
Hi, I’m Mir Ali, I’m a 17-year old AI and BCI researcher and developer, leveraging emerging technologies to solve real-world problems. Join me on my journey as a writer as I develop my knowledge and skills by working on fascinating projects to impact billions in the future.
Connect with me on Twitter: @MirAliZain.