Researchers Monitor Fatigue in Brain With Cell Phone

UCSD researchers have figured out how to detect fatigue by monitoring the brain with a headset, which transmits signals to a cell phone.

In the past, brain-computer interface systems were used to treat nervous system disorders, but Swartz Center for Computational Neuroscience Associate Director Tzyy-Ping Jung and his team focused on fatigue in people’s everyday lives — particularly for professionals such as air traffic controllers and truck drivers, for whom a lapse in concentration can be fatal.

“Most research in this area is trying to develop research for [a] patient’s nervous system, like patients who are paralyzed with no control over their muscles,” Jung said. “We’re trying to target a larger goal. Even healthy people suffer impairments such as falling asleep while driving, and we’re trying to detect and prevent that.”

Working with the Brain Research Center at the National Chiao Tung University in Taiwan, the researchers used a headset to monitor the electrical activity produced by the firing of neurons in the brain.

The electroencephalographic (EEG), or neural, signals were then relayed to a Nokia N97 cell phone, which was programmed to monitor any fluctuations. When the EEG spectrum rises above a certain level, indicating that the subject is getting drowsy, the phone produces an alert to wake the user.

Another difference in Jung’s approach is that the brain is continuously monitored with a portable phone as opposed to a more traditional off-site location, where subjects are monitored on a large EEG machine in a laboratory.

Jung said the cell phone was chosen for its popularity in Taiwan and its portable size. As a result, the platform can continuously monitor and analyze brain activity at any place and time.

The first step of the onsite research was developing a smaller headset, according to Jung.

“A typical EEG system is very bulky, with dangling wires and an amplifier connected to a computer,” Jung said. “It is not very practical in real-world applications because no one is going to wear it in real life. We needed to develop technology that can enable EEG monitoring outside laboratories.”

One study involved 10 subjects wearing wireless EEG headbands and looking at computer screens with numbers arranged to mimic a phone touch pad.

The subjects’ goal was to dial a phone number by looking at those displayed on the screen, which flashed at different rates.

When a subject looked at a number, the signal from the visual cortex was transmitted through Bluetooth technology. The phone received signals, entered the numbers and placed the call. There was a 90-percent accuracy rate among most participants.

“The best part about the equipment is that people don’t need training,” Jung said. “This is involuntary. The brain is driven by flashing visual stimuli.”

Jung said the sensors do not require preparation or conductive paste. They have no plans to sell the device.

“The research can open up numerous new opportunities to monitoring brain activity in real-world environments, ranging from cognitive-state monitoring lapse of attention to seizure prediction,” Jung said.

There have been 32 researchers, mostly at the post-doctoral level, working at SCCN. Each researcher works on two to five different projects, often collaborating with each other.

“As the brain is the most sophisticated ‘machine’ in the world, we need researchers from different disciplines to work together to study the brain,” Jung said.

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