Playing Space Invaders is all in the mind


A 14-year-old epileptic patient has used a brain-computer interface (BCI) to play Space Invaders, using only his thoughts to control the movements in the game.

Surgeons from the School of Medicine at Washington University in St. Louis implanted the  BCI2000 device into the boy’s brain in order to determine the locus of the abnormal electrical activity causing his seizures. The device was developed by Gerwin Schalk at the Wadsworth Center in  New York. It records electrocorticographic data from the surface of the brain and stores it. The data can then be translated into computer language and transmitted to prosthetic limbs or other components, to perform various functions.

This film clip describes the BCI2000; unlike the one used with the epileptic patient, the device in the fim is non-invasive, consisting of an electroencephalogram cap which collects the brain’s electrical activity:

Because the patient was required to remain connected to the BCI until he had a seizure, engineers programmed Atari software so that it was compatible with the device, making the wait more entertaining for the patient.

“He cleared out the whole level one basically on brain control,” says Eric C. Leuthardt, an assistant professor of neurosurgery involved in the work. “He learned almost instantaneously. We then gave him a more challenging version…and he mastered two levels there playing only with his imagination.”

In 2004, Leuthardt led a team which carried out similar research on four adult patients. They are now able to compare the performance of those patients with that of the teenager involved in this study.

“It’s exciting to be able to look at age differences and see what that tells us about the brain,” says Daniel Moran, a professor of biomedical engineering who collaborated with Leuthardt. “No one has ever seen if brain signals from children are different. But we observed much quicker reaction times in the boy and he had a higher level of detail of control.”

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