Mind-control technology might give you the heebie-jeebies but for people who are paralysed or can’t communicate it could change their life I magine if you could turn on the television simply by thinking it. Crazy? Well, it’s not that far-fetched. Progress in the brain-computer interface space is moving rapidly. Samsung, IBM and Philips are three big names exploring this area, and already the media has reported on a thought-powered toy helicopter and mind-controlled robotic arm. 

Mind-control technology (essentially telekinesis) is often described as a natural progression for interacting with devices. It works via an electroencephalography device worn on the scalp that reads people’s brainwaves and translates the signals into some form of activity, such as turning on the television or moving the cursor on a computer screen. In a BBC News report, Insoo Kim, a lead researcher at Samsung, says: “Several years ago, a small keypad was the only input modality to control the phone, but nowadays the user can use voice, touch, gesture and eye movement to control and interact with mobile devices.” 

For many, the greatest potential for the technology is in healthcare. Here the positive impact on people’s lives could be vast, says Dusan Hamlin, chief executive of digital user experience firm This Place. “If you have no means to communicate, then thought interface can be the only way you can interact with the outside world. For people who are locked-in, a thought interface could be a route to independence and control over their bodies.”

One notable example of this technology in practice was at last year’s World Cup, where a paraplegic man, using a mind-controlled exoskeleton, was able to take the first kick of the ball in the competition. Beyond paralysis, the technology could also be used for pain management, pre-empt epileptic seizures, improve the quality of life for people with cerebral palsy or multiple sclerosis, and give those who can’t speak the ability to communicate. 

But the technology is not without its obstacles. In this new world, caregivers will need to be trained as electroencephalography technicians in order to use the equipment, while adequate signal strength in the past has been a challenge, says Russell Plunkett, director of innovation at This Place. 

Passing medical device regulation is a must, with safety and efficacy a high priority. “With the most likely patient group to use a brain-computer interface unable to communicate their discomfort or pain, there is caution about applying a device that has the potential to cause pain,” says Hamlin. But he notes that EEG is a non-invasive procedure so if properly applied it should be painless. 

Some also fear that mind-control technology is a slippery slope to taking over control of another person’s body or reading someone else’s mind. But scientists reassure that this is an unlikely scenario. 

The potential for this technology in the future is exciting. Despite being in its infancy, early trials in animals and humans have been positive and therapeutic applications are likely, particularly as the technology integrates with wearables and the internet of things. This will make the technology more accessible, as well as tap into data collected from these devices, allowing the development of more personalised care plans. Indeed, some studies have already taken the next step of implanting electrodes straight into the brain. Perhaps the future is already here.

This article was published in the May issue of PharmaTimes Magazine. You can read the full issue here