From the 1920s to the 2020s: The rise of BCIs

From the 1920s to the 2020s: The rise of BCIs

A brain-computer interface (BCI) is a direct pathway of communication that links the electrical activity in the human brain to an external device. The development of this technology has had a long and winding journey so far; but with today’s emerging technologies, we’re seeing a surge of new possibilities for brain-computer communication. 

Back in the 1920s, a German scientist named Hans Berger proved that the brain produces electrical currents – and that they can be measured using electroencephalography (EEG), which remains an important tool in neurological diagnoses. This sparked the idea that brain activity could be used to communicate with other external devices or measurement tools; and BCIs have been on scientists’ minds ever since. 

Early experiments in brain-computer communication 

BCI research in the 1960s and 1970s focused on animals – using animal brains to develop methods to interface the brain with devices. Recording the brain activity of animals, however, proved to be pretty frustrating – because the animals were invariably distracted and moving around, not focused on the task at hand. 

It was in 1973 that the term ‘brain-computer interface’ first appeared in scientific literature; coined by computer scientist Jacques Vidal. 

Then as we moved through the 1980s and 1990s, researchers continued to explore the potential of BCI tech. In particular, experimentation with event-related potentials (ERPs) marked an important step on the path towards functional BCIs: computer scientists developed a mechanism for using neuro-signalling pathways to allow users to control computers by selecting letters on a screen. 

From there, signal processing algorithms continued to advance, refined and classified by scientists who were determined to make more reliable and accurate BCIs. Because they knew that once the communication channels were effective, the potential use cases for brain-computer interfaces could be life-changing.

Refined technology enabled the BCI boom

All of this work to develop and refine communication potential between electrical activity in the brain and external devices led to a BCI boom, from the early 2000s onwards. As R&D efforts expanded the possibilities of the field, a surge in BCI applications arose; from assistive tech for people with disabilities, to prosthetic limbs that can be controlled by the brain; and even brain-to-brain communication. 

And today, emerging technologies – particularly artificial intelligence (AI) – are enabling a new wave of BCI development. 

Dr. Ramses Alcaide (President and CEO at Neurable) told us in an interview:

“...non-invasive BCIs open up new possibilities for human-computer interaction by tapping into the incredible capabilities of the brain. They have the potential to enhance accessibility, improve quality of life for individuals with disabilities, and offer novel ways to interact with technology in both active and passive capacities. As research and development in this field progress, we can expect even more exciting applications and advancements.”

“The impact will be transformative,” he added, “reshaping the way we interact with technology and each other. BCIs hold the potential to enhance accessibility, allowing individuals with disabilities to seamlessly control devices with their thoughts. The prospect of direct brain-to-computer communication could revolutionise fields such as healthcare, education, and entertainment.”

And when we spoke to Professor Thomas Oxley (CEO at Synchron), he said:

“Ultimately, I think the more we learn about how the brain works, the better we’ll understand both others and ourselves. We’re lucky to be living in a time where interventional neurology and tech are rapidly outpacing other advancements in medicine, leading to very powerful advancements in our understanding of and access to the brain.”

If you track the rise of BCIs from the 1920s to 2020s, it’s clear that progress has been slow but steady. Now, scientists are picking up the pace – driven by the development of technologies that can enable practical, user-friendly BCI systems that can be effectively applied in real-life settings. 


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