Written by Allison Henry
At the intersection between neuroscience, medicine, and technology lies arguably one of the most groundbreaking developments of this century: brain computer interfaces, or BCIs. BCIs are systems that bridge the nervous system and modern-day biotechnology to significantly improve the quality of life for users. From cochlear implants and prosthetic limbs to video game systems that are more accessible to those with neurological disabilities, BCIs have been designed for a variety of purposes, both medical and recreational, and consequently are of great interest in biomedical and technological fields of research.
I had the privilege of being in the Brain Computer Interfaces First-Year Writing Seminar last year, and I recently met with Dr. Thilo Womelsdorf, who teaches this course every spring, to discuss the future of BCIs as well as how they are involved in his own research. Dr. Womelsdorf is a professor in the Departments of Psychology and Computer Science and is the head of the Attention Circuits Control Lab here at Vanderbilt.
The Attention Circuits Control Lab is at the forefront of the BCI movement and contributes to groundbreaking research about neural circuits and attentional allocation. Dr. Womelsdorf explained that their goal is “to understand the physical substrates that endow our brains with flexible behavior and flexible intention.”
As with many other scientific disciplines, BCI development often involves using animals in research studies. In fact, the Attention Circuits Control Lab uses primates in their research. In my conversation with Dr. Womelsdorf, he explained what this can look like, stating, “I work with human neurosurgeons in Toronto where epileptic patients get implanted with different devices to help them somehow, and in the lab, we are actually training animals on complex tasks [in order to] optimize the surgical techniques, the different tasks that are used, [and] the machine learning approaches to code brain activity.” Similarly, the Attention Circuits Control Lab also recently published an article studying the cognition and motivations of primates as they use touchscreen technology to complete a task.
Looking forward, collaboration between different fields is allowing researchers to push the boundaries of the applications of BCI technology. For instance, recent innovations would not be possible without the integration of Psychology and Computer Science, two fields that Dr. Womelsdorf has had much experience with throughout his research career. Psychologists and computer scientists often work together to create computer models of the brain. He elaborated, “With the more recent computational advantages of having more computational power, we are now able to really find amazing mappings. It increases the speed of discovery of where information is buried in brain circuits.”
In subject areas such as neuroinformatics, these collaborations can be crucial to the advancement of the field. He emphasized, “Neuroscience is, by definition, interdisciplinary. Ten years ago, you would not have said ‘neuroscience,’ you would have said ‘biology.’ Just the feat of neuroscience is kind of reflecting these different tools.”
As more information becomes known about the nervous system and more applications of neurotechnology are developed, brain computer interfaces will likely become more diverse, convenient, and accessible. As a recently developed field with much to be discovered and designed, there is no limit to the possibilities of BCI use, and opportunities for researchers like Dr. Womelsdorf will only continue to grow. Therefore, I wanted to ask Dr. Womelsdorf about how he became involved in this type of work to see how Vanderbilt students might follow in his footsteps.
Dr. Womelsdorf first became interested in the field of neuroscience as an undergraduate “after running into a lab where they put brain activity on audio speakers,” which inspired his curiosity about the activity of neurons. His interest in computer science was also sparked during his undergraduate career. He added, “I had the opportunity as an undergraduate to talk with a neurosurgeon and propose him a psychological task that he could use to diagnose patients. And I remember that I even bought a computer just to program a task for him because I found this so exciting…. I learned programming actually by programming a diagnostic test for neurology patients…. At the end I brought my computer to the hospital and ran the first tests there. It was very exciting actually.”
For any undergraduates that may be interested in pursuing a similar field or who are interested in getting involved with any type of research, Dr. Womelsdorf encourages you to “try to find a lab where you can test out what you are interested in … If you succeed to follow your interests, to stay motivated, that’s probably the best advice that one can give. And sometimes you need to enforce your luck and try to talk with as many people as possible. Talking to people, knocking on their doors is probably the most important part.”