An interview with Dr Mahnaz Arvaneh on her research in neural interfaces and her work on a report by the Royal Society
I'm a lecturer in the Department of Automatic Control and Systems Engineering here in Sheffield. I’ve been here since September 2015 and I work on processing physiological signals, especially brain signals. I use these techniques to develop brain-computer interfaces which can be used to assist people, for example severely disabled people, to control assistive devices. Or they can be used to improve mental and physical rehabilitation, so for example improving cognitive performance or emotional states, or medical applications such as helping people with depression, or people with ADHD or autism
Why this field?
The brain is an interesting part of the body; and the nervous system is the most complex, and interesting, system in our body. I’ve always wanted to understand more about how the brain works, how we learn, how we memorise things, how we feel and how we make decisions. As an engineer I became really interested in the engineering aspects of the brain. So when I was interested in doing a PhD I found a team in Singapore who were doing fascinating work using brain patterns to control assistive devices for people with locked-in syndrome, helping them communicate. That made me very interested, so I started to read more about the subject. I became even more enthusiastic to do research in this area.
There are a lot of interesting developments in brain-computer interfaces. Especially the developments that make a difference in the quality of life for people with progressive neurodegenerative diseases or for those who are unable to communicate in any way with their external environment.
An example is the use of deep brain stimulation: I find this particularly interesting because I had a relative with a severe tremor due to Parkinson’s disease that affected all aspects of his life. But, after he had a neurostimulator implanted in his brain, the abnormal brain activity stopped. He just got back to normal life, like it was before.
Another development that I find fascinating was in 1997: it was the first use of a brain computer interface for a patient in Germany who had locked-in syndrome. Before this he hadn’t been able to talk to anyone for many years. But now he could write a letter to his daughter for the first time.
These developments are incredibly inspiring, and they make me excited about the potential for this technology.
The Royal Society Report
The Royal Society’s report is meant to increase awareness of neural interfaces, and we’re especially targeting the government. We believe that neural interfaces are an emerging technology and that there are a lot of potential benefits, but also risks like any new technology.
As part of the report we spent time with members of the public, asking for their opinion on the technology. Interestingly, they were very positive about the technology, especially the medical applications. The concerns they had were about who would be able to use the technology. They didn’t want a technology that people could pay to access with others left unable to afford it. They wanted these technologies to be accessible to everyone.
One of the main aims of the report is to ask the government to think about the aspects of the technology: the areas that the public wants to see investment in, the ethical implications and regulations. We believe that the UK is in a good position, with a strong background in science, our research, innovative companies, even gaming companies. These are great advantages, along with our established health care system. This is a good time for us. If we want to be the country that leads the world in neural interfaces, then it’s time to act across the different aspects of the technology, from research and commercialisation to the ethical aspects.
My research is mainly focussed on healthcare and improving the quality of life for people with different disabilities. It could be physical or mental disabilities. So for example this could be using neural interfaces to control assistive devices: for people who have limited means of communication or ways of controlling devices. It can also be used for neural rehabilitation, for example, rehabilitation after a stroke or even improving cognitive performance.
The main principle behind brain-computer interfaces is that we measure different mental activities. For example, we can measure the signals when a person imagines moving a hand, perhaps a hand with movement that's been impaired due to a stroke. We can then analyse the signals and extract the patterns that we're interested in. We use that information to control an assistive device or provide feedback to the user. We know that neuroscientists have shown that imagining the movement of an impaired hand can increase the neuroplasticity. But just asking a person to imagine moving their hand is difficult, because there is no corresponding movement in their hand, so the person doesn't know if their brain has been activated correctly. We're providing people with feedback, we can say that, although they can't see any improvement in movement, there is improvement in the brain. So keep doing this. That's just one example, but these techniques allow us to create targeted therapeutic methods.
Neural interfaces are a future technology, and a disruptive technology. In the same way that thirty or forty years ago we didn't know what life with the Internet would be like, and how access to the Internet would completely change our lives. I believe neural interfaces will be like that, that they can change our lives significantly. Not just for rehabilitation, but perhaps we could have something like a "mind gym", playing different games directly with our brain signals that would allow us to improve attention and emotional states. So in the near future we can be slightly sharper, slightly wiser and make slightly better decisions.
I'm very enthusiastic about this, as we're all aging, living longer than previous generations, it's a way of sustaining cognitive performance.
My heart is with the medical applications, it's hard to have a condition that takes away your independence. But at the same time if we make this technology available more generally (e.g. for gaming) then we have access to much more data about our brain and how it works. All of this could be also used in medical research. In general to enhance the quality of life for people who need it.