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How Brain-computer Interfaces Work

Introduction to How Brain-Computer Interfaces Work
2007 HowStuffWorks

As the power of modern computers grows alongside our understanding of the human brain, we move ever closer to making some pretty spectacular science fiction into reality. Imagine transmitting signals directly to someone's brain that would allow them to see, hear or feel specific sensory inputs. Consider the potential to manipulate computers or machinery with nothing more than a thought. It isn't about convenience -- for severely disabled people, development of a brain-computer interface (BCI) could be the most important technological breakthrough in decades. In this article, we'll learn all about how BCIs work, their limitations and where they could be headed in the future.

The Electric Brain

The reason a BCI works at all is because of the way our brains function. Our brains are filled with neurons, individual nerve cells connected to one another by dendrites and axons. Every time we think, move, feel or remember something, our neurons are at work. That work is carried out by small electric signals that zip from neuron to neuron as fast as 250 mph [source: Walker]. The signals are generated by differences in electric potential carried by ions on the membrane of each neuron.

­Although the paths the signals take are insulated by something called myelin, some of the electric signal escapes. Scientists can detect those signals, interpret what they mean and use them to direct a device of some kind. It can also work the other way around. For example, researchers could figure out what signals are sent to the brain by the optic nerve when someone sees the color red. They could rig a camera that would send those exact signals into someone's brain whenever the camera saw red, allowing a blind person to "see" without eyes.

In the next section, we'll learn about the basics of the interface itself.