Combining VR and BCIs to regain lost cognitive abilities
Photos are memories captured in a single frame. A photo can be a wonderful reminder of the good times past. For older generations, a photo they should remember is either a nostalgic blast from the past or nothing familiar at all. As humans, remembering everything is impossible! I don’t even remember what I had for breakfast! As we get older, about every five years, the chances of developing Alzheimer’s disease doubles.
The Problem Explained
Imagine an apple. If you leave the apple alone, it slowly starts to brown and then it eventually starts to rot. There are many ways to prevent apples from browning. For example, soaking it in a saltwater bath. But if we compare this to humans, there is very little we can do to slow the onset of Alzheimer’s. Just like the apple, if you leave humans alone for prolonged periods of time to do absolutely nothing, our brain isn’t stimulated and it sits there slowly developing Alzheimer’s until eventually we start to lose our cognitive abilities such as walking, grabbing, and much more.
Alzheimer’s is a progressive, irreversible brain disorder, causing neurons to die and the brain to shrink. It currently affects over 5.8 million people in the US alone. Furthermore, this number is estimated to triple to 14 million by 2050.
However, if people with early-stage to mild Alzheimer’s start soaking the apple in a water bath, or in other words, start cognitive training, we can start recovering some of our lost cognitive abilities.
Now, diagnosing Alzheimer’s disease is extremely hard in its early stages. But, there are activities in our everyday lives that contribute to preventing the development of Alzheimer’s. One known way to help delay the onset is physical activity. However, for those already diagnosed with mild Alzheimer's, some movements involving the use of a certain body part might be difficult for them. But assuming they can still think somewhat sharply, what if instead of making them move their body physically, we add an extension to their body so that they can move just by thinking?
That’s where neuroreality comes in. Neuroreality combines brain-computer interface or BCI and virtual reality or VR for short. BCIs measure brain signals to perform certain tasks through mental rehearsal — a method of learning involving imagined, mental practice of performing a task. The VR part creates a virtual environment to replicate reality, making it perfect for cognitive training.
Cognitive training is like sports but for the brain. It is basically small tasks that involve specific parts of the brain and trains the brain to remember certain movements.
As I mentioned earlier, neuroreality takes advantage of mental rehearsal. Mental rehearsal also translates physically because similar areas of your brain light up as seen in MRI scans and proven by the Wright State University making it a better alternative to physical activity for those with Alzheimer’s.
In some cases, with neuroreality, some users might imagine themselves doing simple tasks like grabbing a cup or they might be playing a complicated game such as navigating a maze. It all depends on the user’s needs.
Neuroreality consists of a virtual environment that gives visual and auditory neurofeedback, creating both an interactive space and a biofeedback platform. Neurofeedback is how we display our brainwaves. Imagine that the high peaks are mountains and the lower peaks are rivers. Depending on how large the mountain or river is, we can classify brainwaves into different categories. Neurofeedback can be measured using electrodes, small devices that sit on top of our head.
A closed-loop BCI system with neurofeedback will automatically showcase the potential to slow cognitive decline in patients as it generates significant change in brain wave characteristics, promoting changes in the brain’s organization and connectivity. So as the user repeats a certain action, the more likely they are to remember it as our brain makes that connection.
The user will be able to interact in virtual memory training games through the steps of signal acquisition, extraction, classification, and translation that leads to the user’s output.
Think of BCIs like a translator. Signal acquisition is like the word you’re trying to translate. Extraction and classification are like identifying the language of the word you are trying to translate. Finally, translation is self-explanatory, translating the word into your desired language.
To acquire a signal, a P300 BCI system will be integrated into the EEG. An EEG is a test to measure and record brainwaves. P300 is the measurable brain signal where a positive response peak appears after 300 ms, hence the name P300. It occurs when a user shows interest in the target.
This will lead to the extraction process, in which the user’s brain signals are classified and matched with the user’s intent or action.
The generated brain signals can then be decoded and translated into commands that execute the user’s intention in the virtual environment inside the VR headset.
Neuroreality enables doctors to monitor patients' response rates in real-time. The EEG activities of the users before, during, and after training can be recorded to assess the user’s attention capacities and to monitor the rehabilitation progress to see improvements in the users.
This technology can be implemented in senior care homes and hospitals for easy access and training. Of course, their cognitive abilities can be regained but only for a short term. Just like the apple, it will continue to brown and eventually rot even if you add a wet salt towel around it.
Brain-computer interfaces and virtual reality are ideal for those with Alzheimer’s providing the same amount of stimuli as the real world while taking into consideration various complications. Ultimately, through the integration of BCI and VR, Neuroreality can enhance rehabilitation in Alzheimer’s patients and has the potential to inhibit the progression of Alzheimer’s for patients around the world.
Facts and Figures
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