Team develops ‘skin-like’ brain-machine interface

A thin, wearable brain-machine interface could allow patients to be monitored outside of hospital, or let soldiers communicate silently in the field.

University of California, San Diego researchers have demonstrated a thin, flexible, skin-like device, mounted with tiny electronic components, which can acquire electrical signals from the brain and skeletal muscles and transmit the information wirelessly to an external computer.

Until now, says Professor Todd Coleman, brain-machine interfaces have been heavy and unwieldy because of the vast array of electronic components required.

The device is made of a thin sheet of plastic covered with a water-soluble layer that sticks to skin after washing with water. Once applied, the plastic dissolves, leaving the electronic components imprinted into the skin like a temporary tattoo.

The team showed that a wide array of electrical components, including sensors, transistors, power supplies such as solar cells and wireless antennas could be combined on a single device that is nearly unnoticeable for the wearer.

Coleman’s research group has used the device to enable someone to control a computer game with muscles in his throat by speaking the commands – and, in principle, simply mouthing commands should work.

The team envisions applications in areas such as military operations, gaming, education and consumer electronics. For example, the ability to communicate with a computer without actually verbalizing your message out loud clearly benefits patients with muscular or neurological disorders.

Its discreet tattoo-like appearance could also make it useful for covert military operations requiring the operator to communicate with a remote command station.

“The brain-machine interface paradigm is very exciting and I think it need not be limited to thinking about prosthetics or people with some type of motor deficit,” says Coleman.