Digital Health

Brain Machine Interfaces: The power of thought

In 2017, the topic of Brain Machine Interface (BMI) was taken up by the Fraunhofer Institute as a trend subject for rehabilitation medicine. The vision: fast, intuitive and precise mind control of computers and machines to help people with disabilities regain lost abilities. We at //next wanted to know: What exactly does this mean? What other fields of application are possible? What is the current state of research?

Brain machine interfaces enable direct communication between the human brain and technical devices. In other words, using interface technology, machines and devices can be controlled by thought without the need for input. The development of this technology is particularly important for people with physical disabilities. But they are not the only ones who could benefit from such developments in the long term - pain patients and people suffering from Parkinson's disease, for example, could also benefit. In the following, we take a closer look at how exactly this interaction between the human brain and the machine works.

How interactions arise from impulses

Our brain is a complex structure. It consists of billions of nerve cells, known as neurons. Each individual neuron can in turn make connections with other nerve cells in order to pass on information. The so-called synapses serve as a switching and communication point between the individual neurons. The electrical impulses reach these when there is sufficient brain activity and are converted into chemical messengers in order to be transported from one nerve pathway to another. Electrical signals are then triggered.

In real-life practice, this means, for example, that when I place my hand on a hot surface, special sensors in the skin react and send electrical impulses to the nerve cells in my brain. From there, they are transmitted and reach other cells via the synapses. The neuron network ensures that my brain receives the important information "Attention! Hot! Danger of burns!" can be processed. I feel the pain and pull my hand away. The interplay of neurons and synapses enables the brain and body to process information promptly when they are working together. Our neuronal network is programmed for this.

But what happens if the neuronal information system is interrupted due to an injury? This is where Brain Machine Interfaces (BMI) come into play, which, in combination with AR/VR technology, can open up further interesting possibilities for rehabilitative measures.

The power of thought - anything but magic

One person who is already "living" a human-machine existence is Nathan Copeland. He has been completely paralyzed since an accident at the young age of 18. In 2014, he agreed to take part in a study for people with significant spinal cord injuries. The aim of the study was to find out whether a brain-computer interface (BCI) could be used to at least partially restore lost physical functions. Copeland received four implants that translated his neural commands into movements. A prosthetic arm was also interposed. The now 37-year-old American used this to create his BCI artworks.  

Dutchman Gert-Jaan Oskam is currently learning to walk, climb stairs and even stand again as part of an experimental process with the help of a wireless "digital bridge". He is paralyzed from the waist down following an accident. Using electronic brain implants, his brain activity and thoughts are transmitted to his legs and feet via a second implant in his spine (Brain Spine Interface). The amazing thing about the procedure developed by Swiss researchers led by Prof. Jocelyne Bloch from the University of Lausanne: Even if the implants are only used temporarily, they show the potential to train muscles and promote nerve regeneration. Gert-Jaan Oskam is not cured, he can only walk a few hundred meters a day. But he has a vision of new independence.

Brain surgery not absolutely necessary

For a few years now, research has been carried out into the possibility of inserting brain-computer interfaces directly into the body via the bloodstream instead of surgically. In 2019, such a Stentrode TM was inserted into a human body for the first time. It grows into the tissue, records the impulses from the brain and then transmits them to a device implanted under the skin at chest level. From there, electrical signals are sent to a computer or other control device. Over time, the impulses and the movements to be carried out with them are learned by the human-machine system and are carried out with just a glance, without having to lift a finger.

This technology is currently being tested by ALS patient Philip O'Keefe. For the mid-60-year-old Australian, everyday communication has been a real challenge since his illness. Since wearing a BCI, he has been able to write emails and text messages or publish a social media post using thought control.

Applications in conjunction with VR and AR

In combination with immersive technologies such as VR and AR, non-invasive BCIs are likely to become interesting for a larger healthcare market in the long term. The technology company OpenBCI, founded in 2013, initially focused on producing sensors that simply displayed the activities of the brain. The next step was to not only record the brain's activities, but also to put them into context. Together with the Finnish VR/XR manufacturer Varjo, a multimodal headset called Galea was finally developed in 2018, which incorporates a whole host of sensors for different purposes. Heart, skin, muscle, eye and even brain activity can be recorded and used in conjunction with AI technology for various purposes. OpenBCI CEO Conor Russomanno presented an impressive use case during his TED Talk in the summer of 2023. The audience was able to see how neurohacker Christian Bayerlein, who lives with spinal muscular atrophy and uses assistance systems in his everyday life, controlled a drone using only his thoughts with the help of this neural technology.


While research has so far focused on improving and overcoming physical impairments, it is just as conceivable that OpenBCI could also be used to treat addiction or mental illnesses. However, it remains to be seen to what extent the results and tests to date can be transferred to general practice. This will probably be less a question of hardware or software. The limits of what is feasible are reached where our knowledge of the human brain ends. Significant progress has been made in recent years in particular. However, research into this sensitive organ remains a complex and challenging task. Furthermore, no one can currently say with certainty how durable the implanted interfaces are. In Copeland's case, for example, they are still functioning, but with limited performance. The ethical issues surrounding this topic are likely to be even more complex than our brains.

Learn more

Fraunhofer-Institut: Brain-Computer-Interfaces

Federal Ministry of Education and Research: International research project on ethical, legal and social aspects of brain-computer interfaces (BCI) (in German)

Cybersecurity of brain-computer interfaces (in German)

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