Tech startup Neurovigil announced last April that Stephen Hawking was testing the potential of its iBrain device to allow the astrophysicist to communicate through brainwaves alone. Next week Professor Hawking and iBrain inventor, Dr Philip Low from Stanford University, present their findings at the Francis Crick Memorial Conference in Cambridge, England. In anticipation, Gizmag spoke to Dr Low about the potential applications of the iBrain.
When Dr Low first met Stephen Hawking, he asked when the renowned astrophysicist would like to begin trialing his new product. Low waited a moment as Hawking entered his response through the pair of infra-red glasses he uses to send messages via the muscles in his cheek. Then the reply came back: “Right now.”
At 70-years-old, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (A.L.S) or Lou Gehrig’s Disease has deteriorated Stephen Hawking’s condition to the point where it takes several minutes for him to communicate a simple message. The pair of glasses dubbed the “cheek-switch” has been his primary way of communicating ever since the 1980’s when the disease robbed him of his ability to speak. The “cheek-switch” utilizes one of the only muscles Hawking still has use of - but for how much longer, doctors can’t be sure. For this reason, finding a new method of communication has become essential for the astrophysicist.
The iBrain was devised as the first EEG headset to monitor brainwaves through a single-channel only (though it is no longer the only single-channel EEG on the market). It consists of a simple fabric headband that holds a tiny device containing a small electrode to the skull, and it weighs less than a pack of cigarettes.
Through the use of an algorithm formulated by Low, the iBrain reads brainwave activity and transmits it wirelessly back to a computer. As Dr. Low points out, the iBrain can collect data regardless of where a person is or what they are doing. For this reason it is a welcome alternative to the masses of electrodes and wires that hospitals and sleep labs generally use when assessing a patients brain activity.
Hawking was fitted with the head-band device and asked to “imagine that he was scrunching his right hand into a ball.” While he can’t actually move his hand, the motor cortex in his brain can still issue the command and generate electrical waves in his brain. The algorithm then translates these thoughts into signals, which show up on the monitor as spikes on a grid.
“We were looking for a change in the signal,” says Dr Low. “In January this year, we found it.”
The Francis Crick Memorial Conference, which takes place on July 7, discusses the topic of "Consciousness in humans and non-human animals" and will be the first time Hawking and Low deliver their findings to the public.
While many are hoping to see the famed astrophysicist speaking to us “through his brain” for the first time, it is unlikely that the technology has been refined to the point where this can be easily demonstrated. Instead, much of the research will be presented through video documentation.
While much of the publicity that Neurovigil has gained has been due to its close work with Stephen Hawking, Dr Low is quick to point out that the technology has been developed for everybody. That’s because the concept of “mind-mapping” with the iBrain is not limited to its use as an augmented communication device. In fact, the applications are so varied that it led to Dr Low refusing initial funding from venture capitalists.
“I knew that if they funded us they would want to concentrate only on one specific use for the device, like monitoring apnea,” says Low.
Instead, Dr Low funded the startup on his own, putting himself US$240,000 in credit card debt in the process. “I didn’t pay myself for three years," says Low. "I wanted to build a better telescope - one that could be pointed all around the universe.”
Currently the iBrain is being used to monitor such conditions as autism, depression and sleep apnea. It is also being used as a revolutionary new way to monitor drug trials through brain-wave analysis.
Due to the portability of the device, hospitalization is no longer a requirement of the testing procedure. Patients can use the iBrain to record their brainwave patterns while going about everyday tasks. The data collected is analyzed by researchers, who conclude whether a drug is working effectively, while also monitoring for side effects. The U.S Military has also taken an interest in the device, hoping to monitor their soldiers for conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain Injury.
The team at Neurovigil are currently hard at work on the iBrain 2, which Dr Low says will be even smaller, have better battery life, and can also monitor the subject’s heart rate. Low says that while the iBrain 2 is about 35 percent complete and plans are already underway for the iBrain 3, which is set to be Neurovigil’s first device sold directly to the public. Low says that the iBrain’s third incarnation will also feature an electrocardiogram (EKG) and be capable of connecting wirelessly through iPhones and Android phones. The estimated cost of the iBrain 3 is around US$100.
Despite plans to release the iBrain 3 commercially, Low is quick to point out that Neurovigil will remain a medical company first and a consumer company second.
“We feel that a nice outcome of this would be to get patients the help they need sooner and recognize the pathology before they are symptomatic,” he says.
The Francis Crick Memorial Conference will be held on July 7.