Christopher James’ visiting card says he is professor of Healthcare Technology, and Director, Institute of Digital Healthcare at the University of Warwick. What he actually does at his lab is far more fascinating than that description can match.

Prof James and his team are examining applications for Brain-to-Brain communication, primarily to help patients who cannot talk to the world outside except with the aid of a machine. The team sticks electrodes on assorted skulls, hooks volunteers up to EEG machines, wires test subjects up to the computer, flashes LED lights at them, and Prof. James also gets his daughter and son to assist.

They are at the cusp of delivering a product to the homes of those with severe motor impairment - an affordable, manageable device that will help them communicate. Currently these devices can transmit simple binary codes, but in the future lurks the possibility of sophisticated communication, thought-to-thought, brain-to-brain, a machine in between.

Neural engineering

“The area I work in is a big chunk of neural engineering - to understand the brain, to diagnose but to also understand the way the brain functions,” Prof James says. He spoke to The Hindu during a visit to the city to deliver the Wheatstone lecture organised by the Institution of Engineering and Technology. If you must slot his intriguing work, feel free to slip it under the category, Brain Computer Interface (BCI).

BCI facilitates communication with the outside world through a machine. “Any form of communication requires muscle movement,” explains Prof. James. “There are people, who because of trauma or stroke, have almost intact brain (in terms of cognitive function) but no ability to move muscles. In the past these people were ‘locked in’; they had no way of communicating with the outside world. We can glue electrodes into the scalp, or implant them into the brain. We can eavesdrop on brain activity and use that to assess the level of cognitive ability.”

You will put to a cognitively-aware person the simplest form of communication – yes and no, Prof. James adds. “You can do that by setting up specific types of activity in the brain- where you know what the response is going to be. You ask someone to imagine anything to do with movement. Imagine moving the right arm for yes, and left leg for no. This gives us activity on the motor cortex. We pick that up and can tell the difference between left and right movement. Here is a rudimentary communication system.”

It is possible to make that a little more fancy, where flashing LED lights trigger a recognition response in the brain. The signal processing algorithm then detects the response to figure out what was being looked at. “It makes that more than a binary yes or no.”

But brain-out communication, or BCI has been around for a decade or more. Prof. James is trying to go beyond. “Brain-to-brain communication. This is possible in a very limited sense, now. We thought why don’t we put two BCI systems together,” he explains. On one side, someone is linked to the EEG equipment that reads brain activity and does the binary yes/no experiment. This is then transmitted over the internet and converted to flashing LED lights. “My daughter in the other room is looking at the lights, hooked up to the EEG machine. From her visual cortex, we are picking up the 0s and 1s that the first person is transmitting. That is brain-to-brain communication…It originates from some one else’s intention.”

This is passive reception of information. “Instead of me putting information into visual cortex, imagine if I put it into various brain sites. We could have brain to brain communication of the range that people imagine it to be. We have the technology to do it… But do you want to do it?” Especially, if it means drilling the skull to put electrodes in.

The larger question though, Prof James says, is that people need this, not in the lab, but at home or in a care home. His lab is working on an affordable, robust system, usable by caregivers who are not clinicians. By passing the expensive clinical, multi-channel EEG, they instead use a two-channel, cigarette-box sized tool with blue tooth. The algorithms used make it easy for carers to slap the electrodes on roughly in position.

“If a person has a particular issue and they come to us, we can go home, test their ability to communicate,” he says, outlining future plans. They leave behind the low cost device, that they can use for their communication needs. In exchange the lab gets data on real time use.

For BCI, there are different paradigms, each requiring different levels of attention. At the very basic level you just have to look. The best ones are the type of activities that are self initiated – where you close your eyes and imagine moving left and right. A robust BCI system will pick up only the relevant signals and ignore the rest.

There are two areas where the team needs to move forward. The signal processing ability has to measure up. Every thing needs to be done online, and real time. It is a matter of time, but things are getting faster. “People are now trying to make the paradigms faster and more accurate. But I want to jump all that and come up with new paradigms. When that happens, coupled with better technology, we will have elaborate BCI systems. A situation where we will have mental conversations with some one, however, is way, way out there.”

Clearly, once information is out of the brain what you do with that is entirely up to you, Prof. James explains. Which means, there are applications in utilites as well. “Can I think and turn the light off at home? If you go around with electrodes stuck in the brain and an external device, it is doable. But once again, do you want to do that. It is a question of balancing the benefits with the costs, both monetary and health wise.

However, there are some BCI gaming headsets in the market already, costing less than a 100 USD. In theory it is good, but in practice, there are very few electrodes, they are in the wrong place, and end up recording something – not brain activity, maybe muscle movement. This is fine in a gaming environment, not in healthcare. It is encouraging that the technology to map brain activity could be made cheap.

To listen to Professor James speak, go to http://thne.ws/chris-james