How Brain-computer Interfaces Work

Sensory Input

Dr. Peter Brunner demonstrates the brain-computer interface at a conference in Paris.
Dr. Peter Brunner demonstrates the brain-computer interface at a conference in Paris.
Stephane de Sakutin/AFP/Getty Images

The most common and oldest way to use a BCI is a cochlear implant. For the average person, sound waves enter the ear and pass through several tiny organs that eventually pass the vibrations on to the auditory nerves in the form of electric signals. If the mechanism of the ear is severely damaged, that person will be unable to hear anything. However, the auditory nerves may be functioning perfectly well. They just aren't receiving any signals.

A cochlear implant bypasses the nonfunctioning part of the ear, processes the sound waves into electric signals and passes them via electrodes right to the auditory nerves. The result: A previously deaf person can now hear. He might not hear perfectly, but it allows him to understand conversations.

The processing of visual information by the brain is much more complex than that of audio information, so artificial eye development isn't as advanced. Still, the principle is the same. Electrodes are implanted in or near the visual cortex, the area of the brain that processes visual information from the retinas. A pair of glasses holding small cameras is connected to a computer and, in turn, to the implants. After a training period similar to the one used for remote thought-controlled movement, the subject can see. Again, the vision isn't perfect, but refinements in technology have improved it tremendously since it was first attempted in the 1970s. Jens Naumann was the recipient of a second-generation implant. He was completely blind, but now he can navigate New York City's subways by himself and even drive a car around a parking lot [source: CBC News]. In terms of science fiction becoming reality, this process gets very close. The terminals that connect the camera glasses to the electrodes in Naumann's brain are similar to those used to connect the VISOR (Visual Instrument and Sensory Organ) worn by blind engineering officer Geordi La Forge in the "Star Trek: The Next Generation" TV show and films, and they're both essentially the same technology. However, Naumann isn't able to "see" invisible portions of the electromagnetic spectrum.

On the next page, find out about the inherent limitations of brain-computer interfaces -- and also learn about some exciting innovations.