It looks a bit like the Cerebro device from X-Men: First Class, albeit with a fair few less tubes and no omnipotent mutant psychics involved. In reality, it’s a stretchy nylon hat that straps on beneath your chin. On the outside is a standardized map of brain regions and series of small holes into which one of six different electrodes can be placed. The eight or more available electrodes are connected by thin wires to a small pack, which attaches with Velcro near the base of the skull. And the whole thing interfaces with a nearby computer through Bluetooth.
This the combination brain scanning and stimulating platform manufactured by Barcelona-based Neuroelectrics, a spinoff of Starlab, and its creators hope it’ll be at the forefront of brain science in the Boston and beyond.
The company opened an office in Cambridge last month, and they’re selling their platform as two distinct devices: Enobio, a brain-scanning EEG version and Starstim, a brain-stimulating tCS version. Notable researchers using Neuroelectrics’s technology can be found just not far from the new office at One Broadway and include the Miller Lab at MIT and Dr. Alvaro Pascual Leone at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. Currently, these are only available to researchers, as the devices have not been approved in the U.S. for use in diagnostics or stimulation.
While there are many other existing EEG (electroencephalography) and tCS (transcranial stimulation) devices available with a variety of specialties, Neuroelectric’s device is a bit different. Its modular design and broad suite of accompany software (everything from real-time 3D brain activity maps to thought-controlled games) make it a brain science jack-of-all-trades.
Laura Dubreuil-Vall, Technical Manager in the Cambridge office, talked about some of the potential applications for which Neuroelectrics’s devices can and are being used. These include: early detection of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, sleep studies, feedback therapy for people with motor or behavioral issues; brain stimulation as a treatment for depression, pain, post-stroke rehabilitation or cognitive enhancement cognitive enhancement (“brain exercise,” as Dubreuil-Vall calls it, is still a relatively new and controversial use for tCS); and a brain-computer interface for people with disabilities.
The potential of the device as a brain-computer interface is especially intriguing. Dubreuil-Vall demonstrated a simple game where a person wearing the Enobio (EEG) device could control a cartoon spaceship by controlling their level of excitement. The motion of the ship up and down on the computer screen is keyed to the EEG’s reading of alpha waves from the subject’s brain, which are generated during wakeful relaxation with closed eyes. Close your eyes, you relax a bit, and the ship will move lower on the screen. Similarly, they’ve used their device to control a small drone robot’s altitude in a real-world version of the game.
The examples are simple, but powerful proof of concept: “People with motor disabilities,” says Dubreuil-Vall, “could wear this [device] and control a laptop with their eyes.” To Dubreuil-Vall, this is the most promising part of what Neuroelectrics does. “I really think that [what we do] is interesting for anyone with a disability,” brain-computer interfaces like those devised by Neuroelectrics can offer “complementary therapy with really promising results.”
The Cambridge office is part of what Dubreuil-Vall says is the company’s plan to develop credibility with stateside researchers and “expand Neuroelectrics internationally to become the trusted leader in brain health” Company executives picked Boston as their first U.S. home base to be closer to several clients and partners in the area, including Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, MIT, Boston University, Boston Children’s Hospital, Spaulding Rehabilitation Center, Brown University, UMass Lowell and VA Boston, according to BizJournals.com.
Neuroelectrics hopes to provide the technological platform for researchers to develop new and interesting brain science, diagnostics, and medicine.
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