Researchers Develop Portable Brain Monitor Technology

A team of bioengineers and cognitive scientists led by UCSD alumni recently developed the first ever portable electroencephalography monitor headset and analytical software system, which will be accessible in the future outside of the lab setting. 

The EEG is a medical test used to diagnose epilepsy, sleep disorders, coma and other focal brain disorders or injuries. It functions by using sensors in the form of electrodes to detect spontaneous electrical impulses in the brain; it can show the presence of diseases and injuries, identifying abnormalities in the EEG readings by comparing those conditions to their average baselines. 

UCSD professor of bioengineering and Co-Director of the Institute for Neural Computation Gert Cauwenberghs is one of the principal investigators on the project. He described to the UCSD Guardian the “it factor” for this recently developed system that makes the device unique.

“Brain imaging typically relies on bulky and expensive instruments, such as magnetic resonance or positron emission tomography scanners,” Cauwenberghs explained. “This work originating from research in the Institute for Neural Computation and the department of bioengineering in the Jacobs School of Engineering is the first to provide real-time, high-resolution imaging of brain electrical activity using unobtrusive, dry-electrode electroencephalography.”

Cauwenberghs also told the Guardian how this system is a  significant step for brain monitoring and the applications for the device are broad. 

“Interpreting these dynamic images of brain activity help neurologists in identifying and monitoring disorders of the brain such as Parkinson’s, epilepsy, Alzheimer’s etc.,” Dr. Cauwenberghs elaborated. “The quick setup of the EEG headset is also useful in ambulatory settings by allowing the caregiver for prompt on-site diagnosis of critical medical conditions that call for immediate clinical intervention, such as possible traumatic brain injury after a head impact and suspected stroke.”

The newly developed system is comprised of a 64-channel dry-electrode wearable EEG headset making the system applicable in the real-world; dry sensors are easier to apply than wet sensors and can simultaneously provide data on the brain’s high-density electrical impulses. EEGs tend to use wet sensors to detect spontaneous electrical impulses in the brain, both while an individual is awake or asleep.

“The Cognionics EEG headset operates without wires, so it permits the subject to roam around freely,” Cauwenberghs further elaborated on the headset. “And the dry electrodes don’t require any gel or other messy or abrasive skin preparation, so they avoid discomfort to the user and long preparation times of typical wired and gel-based commercial EEG systems.”

The headset was developed by co-lead researcher and chief technology officer Mike Yu Chi of Cognionics, Inc. Chi, a Jacobs School alumnus and co-founder of Cognionics, spearheaded the headset project and led the team that developed it. 

The EEG headset is an octopus-like shaped device with multiple elastic arms and the dry sensors are placed at the end of each arm and designed to make optimal contact with the scalp. These sensors designed to work on hair are made from silver and carbon with a silver, silver-chloride coating being the crucial material needed to make sure that the sensors conduct high quality signals while remaining durable and flexible. Bare skin sensors are comprised of a hydrogel encased inside a conductive membrane with an amplifier equipped to help boost signal quality and shield the sensors from other electrical interference. 

The headset works optimally if the subject at hand is stationary, but the researchers and developers at Cognionics are trying to improve the its performance so that it functions properly while the subject is engaged in a more strenuous activity than walking. 

Along with the transportable EEG headset, the system also runs on a sophisticated software which has been coded to work on data interpretation of the data obtained through the headset. This software was developed by a team led by another UCSD alumnus and lead author Tim Mullen, who is currently the chief executive officer of the startup he cofounded that focuses on analytics, Qusp. Mullen and his team developed the software with an algorithm so that the EEG data from the headset will be separated and distinguishable from the other electrical noise that would otherwise tamper the EEG data, such as walking or talking.  

“Our vision at Qusp is to embed advanced neurotechnology into everyday life,” Mullen told the UCSD Guardian. “We envision a future where technology for brain and body sensing is as pervasive and useful as smart phones are today. Wearable, mobile EEG hardware, such as the Cognionics system, are an important step towards that future… We hope to empower developers to rapidly create brain- and body-aware applications transforming not only medicine and health, but also the way we work, play, communicate and learn.”