Indian brains join effort to connect mind with machine

FP

A woman paralysed for over nine years directs a robotic arm, sending thought signals via a computer, to pick up her cup of morning coffee so that she can sip it. Another paralysed woman types an email message using only signals from her brain.

The merging of mind and machine, which was once in the realms of science fiction, is gradually reality. At Brown University in the US, researchers are in the middle of human trials for brain-computer interfaces that help restore arm movements for paralysed patients.

An Indian effort to take baby steps into this emerging area of technology has been made at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, which recently hosted a Winter School and Conference on Computational Aspects of Neural Engineering featuring some of the who's who of brain-machine interface researchers, including Brown University's Prof John P Donaghue and Wilson Trucculo.

Organised by the IISc Mathematics Initiative and the Indo-US science and technology forum's Virtual Institute for Mathematical and Statistical Sciences, the winter school sought to provide mathematics and engineering students the necessary biological background for neural engineering — a field where India is lagging despite core strengths in computer science, mathematics and engineering, areas that lie at the heart of the emerging sphere.

"India has a lot of core strengths needed to build brain-machine interfaces, like in the areas of signal processing, mathematics, engineering and computer science, but it is still a very nascent area," said Prof Govindan Rangarajan, who heads the IISc Mathematics Initiative and who has been involved in a DRDO-funded Indian research effort to develop brain-machine interfaces for autonomous vehicle navigation.

"The activity here is a sign of what is going on in this combined neuro-engineering, neuro-technology, neuroscience effort to produce devices that can help people overcome severe disabilities — restore lost functions like hearing, vision and movement," Prof Donaghue, founding chairman of Brown University's Center for Neuroscience, said at a talk during the winter school.

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