In 1973, UCLA computer science professor Jacques Vidal published a landmark paper, “Toward direct brain-computer communication” that both coined the term “brain-computer interface” and set the foundation for an emerging field.
“That whole concept of interacting with and sensing the brain – interpreting signals with a computer and controlling the cursor on a computer with the mind – that paper is pretty much the essence of it,” said Dejan Markovic, a professor of electrical and computer engineering and leader of the Parallel Data Architectures Laboratory. “The real question is: Can we build technologies that enable those types of things that are clinically sustainable, efficacious, and attractive to patients?”
Looking to answer that question, Markovic carries on the legacy of brain-computer interface research at the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering. For nearly a decade, he has been leading the development of a device that would be implanted in the brain to help people with a range of neurological conditions, such as anxiety, depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder. And he’s been working closely with doctors and scientists at UCLA and UC San Francisco who study the brain.
“The concepts laid out in 1973 by Vidal haven’t changed too much,” he added. “The brain and a computer can ‘talk’ to each other through electrical signals. The big thing that we are trying to change is to be able to quantify what those signals are, and affect functional networks of the brain.”
Markovic’s prototype is a small implantable device with sixty-four electrodes that fan out onto the brain’s surface. With four modules for each electrode, it constitutes a 256-channel system. The system measures tiny electric signals that tell what’s happening in the brain. The device then interprets that data, and responds with electrical pulses, which research has shown can alter mood.
In several ways, it is leaps and bounds more advanced than implants that have come before it. It’s much smaller for one. In fact it’s not immediately noticeable, unless someone’s really looking for it. It has a tiny battery than can be wirelessly charged. The device is also much more sensitive, able to detect and decipher very faint signals from the brain.
Finally, it’s a closed loop system – meaning that while still picking up the brain’s signals, it can modify the frequency and amplitude of the stimulating signal. The system brings much more data into the loop, giving doctors and scientists more information about what’s happening in real time . Other devices only deliver a constant electric signal, while this new system offers a therapy that can be more personalized to a particular patient
“Our technology could revolutionize non-pharmacological treatment of brain disorders,” Markovic said. “We want to be able to understand how various indications are expressed in the actual time waveforms, from specific points inside the brain.”
Markovic and UC San Francisco colleagues saw a major breakthrough in an experiment, which was funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. A patient with severe anxiety was recorded before and after electrical stimulation was applied. The change in mood following stimulation was immediate and striking.
“For a person to say, ‘now I feel normal, this is me,’ that was the biggest impact point,” he said.
With a series of successful demonstrations, Markovic is now looking to commercialize the technology. This includes miniaturizing the external device down to just four cubic centimeters. But first, why go with a brain implant in the first place?
“The brain is an electrochemical organ and the vast majority of our treatments for neurological and psychiatric diseases focus on the chemical part,” explained Dr. Nader Pouratian, a UCLA neurosurgeon working with Markovic. “The goal with devices like the one that Dr. Markovic is creating is to target the electrical abnormalities that occur in the brain as a result of neurological and psychiatric disease.”
Added Markovic, “We are looking into patients that have tried pharmaceuticals. In some people, pharmaceuticals have some effect, but there are a sizeable amount of people where pharmaceuticals do not help.”
On a parallel track, Markovic’s technology also offers scientists a powerful magnifying glass into the inner workings of the brain. One of his collaborators is Nanthia Suthana, a UCLA assistant professor at the Jane and Terry Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior who studies neuromodulation and neuroimaging.
“The research potential is really endless with such a device,” Suthana said. “Relevant to my own research field, we will be able to investigate the role of single neuron and local field potential activity in freely moving human behaviors such as in spatial navigation, learning and memory.”
“These newer details will allow us to better understand the neuronal mechanisms that support typical human brain functions as well as abnormalities that may occur in neurologic and psychiatric disorders such epilepsy,” she added.