MINNEAPOLIS Bin He can point to a spot on the brain that gave off a sub-microvolt signal corresponding to a thought.
The University of Minnesota researcher isolated signals in separate tests with a magnetic-resonance imager and an electroencephalogram (EEG) as part of a study on brain-computer interfaces. A prototype system based on the findings used an EEG hat to capture the signals from a subject and translate them into commands controlling a simulated helicopter flight over the University campus.
"It's not an F-16, but it's a major advance over cursor controls shown in earlier experiments," he said.
Bin He, Conference chair, EMBC '09 |
Several hurdles stand in the way of commercial uses for such brain-computer interfaces. The weak signals are difficult to isolate and interpret, and no reliable sensors exist to capture them without use of gels that dry out within two hours.
Nevertheless, the brain-computer interface is "one of the hottest research areas in bioengineering," Bin He said. "The pace of this field is much faster than I imagined a couple years ago because there's a significant amount of interest in the scientific community," perhaps because of its seemingly sci-fi character.
The field is one of a dozen represented at the 31st Annual International Conference of the IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society this week. Bin He is the current president of the society and thus chairman of this year's EMBC '09.
The problem of figuring out which of the more than 1,850 presentations he will attend this week points to one of the challenges in this rapidly expanding profession. At one end of the spectrum, engineers are peering into cellular structures down to their molecular constituents to understand how diseases work. At the other end, researchers are trying to interpret complex systemic relationships and clinical data.
"You need to bridge the two together, and that is probably the biggest challenge for biomedical engineering," he said.
Bin He has tried to make some of those connections by organizing sessions that will bring industry executives to the conference which is historically focused on research. Division heads from Boston Scientific, Johnson & Johnson, Medtronic and St. Jude Medical will take part in an afternoon forum on opportunities in medical devices.
Three floors above Bin He's office, a new medical devices research center is making connections of its own. The year-old center provides a one-stop shop for researchers to work on human and animal tissues as well as breadboard, design and etch their own printed circuit boards and casings to complete working prototypes.
Dillon Hodapp, one of the first crop of graduate students to use the facility, recently hosted representatives of Texas Instruments, eager to support the center as a part of its efforts to expand its footprint in medical electronics.