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The Wadsworth Center Brain-Computer Interface System

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BCI Frequently Asked Questions

What is the purpose of brain-computer interface technology?
The goal of BCI technology is to give severely paralyzed people another way to communicate, a way that does not depend on muscle control. Researchers at the Wadsworth Center and Helen Hayes Hospital of the NY State Department of Health are developing a BCI that can be used by severely disabled people in their homes and are testing it with these individuals. This project is at the forefront of research and development aimed at improving BCIs so that they can be made widely available for independent use.

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How does a BCI work?
Many people with disabilities use computers to communicate and to control their environments. However, conventional methods for using computers, like typing on a keyboard or moving a computer mouse, require muscle control and thus may not be useful for people who have little or no muscle control. In contrast, a BCI allows people to use electrical signals from the brain, rather than muscles, to select letters for word-processing and email, to select icons on a computer screen, or to operate devices controlling television settings or room temperature. Studies have shown that even people who have lost muscle control due to disease, neuromuscular disorders, or injury can use BCI systems by changing their brain activity so that a computer can detect their intent and translate it into device control.

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Are all BCI systems the same?
BCI technology is based on measurements of the brain’s natural electrical signals. These can be recorded from the scalp, from the surface of the brain, or from within the brain. The Wadsworth BCI system uses scalp-recorded signals that are recorded using standard clinical EEG (electroencephalographic, or brain wave) methods. Thus, unlike other types of BCI systems, the Wadsworth EEG-based BCI does not require surgery.

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Is Wadsworth’s portable BCI system available for in-home use?
Currently, the Wadsworth BCI system is available for in-home use only by people participating in the research studies conducted by the Wadsworth Center and Helen Hayes Hospital. These studies are funded by the New York State Dept of Health and by grants from the National Institutes of Health and several private foundations.

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Who is eligible to participate in these BCI studies?
People who are:

  • severely paralyzed by any of a variety of neuromuscular disorders such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, Lou Gehrig’s Disease), cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, and high-level spinal cord injury.
  • too disabled to use conventional assistive communication technology such as systems that use muscle activity or eye movements.
  • in adequately stable physical condition, with stable physical and social environments, and with caregiver(s) who have basic computer skills.
  • able to see and to understand instructions.
  • able to use the BCI system as determined in a screening evaluation.
  • in a geographical location and an environment that allows the Wadsworth BCI group to provide ongoing technical support.

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How many people have been provided with the Wadsworth BCI system?
To date, six severely disabled people have used the system in their homes for several months or more. One has now been using the system up to eight hours per day for two and a half years.

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What are the training and technical requirements for in-home use?
If an initial screening process suggests that a person could possibly benefit from the Wadsworth BCI, Wadsworth/Helen Hayes personnel make an initial home visit to do an in-home evaluation. This includes an in-home EEG recording and a trial with the BCI system to help determine if the person will be able to use it. If the results are suitable, a second home visit is made for further testing and confirmation. In third and fourth visits, the person’s caregivers are trained to place the electrode cap and start the BCI software. If these visits are successful, the system may then be placed in the person’s home. Subsequently, continuing technical support is provided by personnel from the Wadsworth Center and/or Helen Hayes Hospital via home visits every 1-2 months, telephone calls, and the Internet. More frequent visits may be required by problems such as a noisy electrical environment, changes in health status, or equipment malfunctions. Thus, at the present time, the person’s geographical location is an important factor in determining whether use of the Wadsworth BCI system is practical.

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How much does the system cost?
While the hardware components cost about $5000, the Wadsworth BCI home system is not yet available outside the confines of our research studies due to the need for substantial ongoing technical support. Efforts are underway to reduce this need and thereby enable much wider dissemination of the Wadsworth system. Contact The Brain Communication Foundation for further information.

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Can anyone purchase a system and be trained?
No, home use of the Wadsworth BCI system is currently confined to a research protocol. Individuals who are interested in and believe they may qualify for the BCI studies, should contact the Clinical Programs Development office at Wadsworth Center (518-486-2893).

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What is needed for the Wadsworth BCI system to become widely available?
Continued research and development is needed to:

  • further simplify the BCI's use and operation.
  • reduce the need for ongoing technical support.
  • further develop useful and easy-to-use applications.
  • fully integrate BCI applications with Windows® or other operating systems for trouble-free operation.
  • gain FDA approval for widespread dissemination of the system beyond the research setting.

For further information, contact The Brain Communication Foundation.

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What other resources are available for disabled individuals who may not have accessto BCI technology at this time?
Many severely disabled people who have difficulty with communication and control can benefit from standard, widely available assistive communication technology. Rehabilitation engineers, speech pathologists, occupational therapists, and rehabilitation therapists are professionals who can provide access to these technologies and assistance in their use. Physiatrists, departments of physical medicine and rehabilitation in local hospitals, rehabilitation centers, nursing homes, and local and national organizations such as the ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) and MD (muscular dystrophy) associations can provide information about how to access these resources.

There are also several national and international groups that maintain helpful websites, including RESNA (Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology Society of North America) and ISAAC (International Society for Augmentive & Alternative Communication). For New York State and the Tri-State area, the Center for Rehabilitation Technology at Helen Hayes Hospital provides a comprehensive service for people needing assistive communication and control technology. At present, most people with disabilities that impair communication and control should first explore the wide spectrum of conventional assistive devices before seriously considering BCI technology.

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