Can mind-controlled VR games help stroke patients?

  • By Zoe Kleinman
  • Technology Writer


In this demo, the on-screen hand is shaking but the student’s actual hand is not.

A system that can translate human brain activity into action without any physical movement is being developed by a neurotech company called Cogitat.

By wearing a prototype headset, basic virtual reality actions can be performed while thinking about it.

So, for example, in a game where a VR jet ski is controlled by handles, you move by thinking about it, rather than clenching your hands.

Elon Musk’s Neuralink company is developing a similar concept.

It’s called the brain-computer interface and many neurotech companies are exploring it.

One of the goals is that it could eventually allow people who have suffered strokes or other brain injuries to remotely control phones or computers.

Neuralink’s method requires a chip to be placed in the brain itself. The company has so far only worked with animals and has come under fire for their treatment. He posted videos that he says show a monkey playing the video game Pong with his mind and the brain activity of a pig with a chip implanted in his brain.

Cogitat is one of the companies developing a system that works above the head rather than inside.

It could one day take the form of a headband worn with a VR headset. Some companies are already creating their own hardware but, as a university spin-off, Cogitat focuses solely on the technology behind it.


BBC technical editor Zoe Kleinman tests a prototype

It is led by NHS consultant Allan Ponniah and computer scientist Dimitrios Adamos from Imperial College London.

The technology is in the development phase, but has already been tested on stroke patients, with positive results. The goal is to encourage them to continue the rehabilitation exercises by making them more engaging.

“When someone has had a stroke and they can’t move their arm, they are very demotivated to participate in rehabilitation. But our technology will allow them to imagine moving their hand and seeing a hand move on the screen, which we think will motivate them to start their physiotherapy course,” Mr Ponniah told the BBC’s Tech Tent podcast. .

Strange experience

I tried it and it is a very strange experience. For starters, it’s harder than it looks to think about doing a move without actually doing it. And you also have to try not to think about other things, which increases your brain activity and creates more noise for the technology to decode while it searches for the motor signal.

I had never seen my own brain activity displayed on a screen in front of me in real time before, like a complex multilevel cardiogram. It was strange in itself – to see the essence of my thoughts on a graph. But when you hear that VR jet ski engine roar, just because you thought about it, it’s an amazing feeling.

Of course, the prototype device didn’t fully read my mind. It wasn’t about translating my thoughts or looking deep into my soul. It was solely focused on motor cues.

“If you don’t choose to interact with the system, nothing happens,” Adamos says. “There’s nothing picked up from you if you stop using it.”

Other companies focus on different types of brain activity – visual cues for example, so you can focus on a number and press buttons on a screen. It is also possible – but controversial – to focus on more personal responses such as likes and dislikes.

Cogitat says it expects to have a working prototype of its technology within the next 12 months – but there are still several challenges ahead for neurotech.

Experts are still learning about brain activity. It is individual to each of us and it is not constant. It changes throughout the day and can be affected by factors such as fatigue and dehydration as well as aging. This means that all brain activity reading systems require continuous recalibration.

Cogitat trains its technicians on a database of hundreds of volunteers who have tested it, which speeds up the calibration process. I met some of the team members – mostly students, who were very enthusiastic, not to mention patient, as they walked me through the demo.

Mr. Adamos proudly tells me that in a recent global machine learning competition, Cogitat not only won first place, but also beat a team from the US Army.

He offered everyone free time to celebrate – but no one took it.

“They had all arrived the next day,” he said. “It’s really fascinating for us and for everyone who has joined this journey.”

You can follow Zoe Kleinman on Twitter @zsk.

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