By: David Ewing Duncan
The iBrain is part of a new generation of portable neural devices and algorithms intended to monitor and diagnose conditions like sleep apnea, depression and autism. Invented by a team led by Philip Low, a 32-year-old neuroscientist who is chief executive of NeuroVigil, a company based in San Diego, the iBrain is gaining attention as a possible alternative to expensive sleep labs that use rubber and plastic caps riddled with dozens of electrodes and usually require a patient to stay overnight.
“The iBrain can collect data in real time in a person’s own bed, or when they’re watching TV, or doing just about anything,” Dr. Low said.
The device uses a single channel to pick up waves of electrical brain signals, which change with different activities and thoughts, or with the pathologies that accompany brain disorders.
But the raw waves are hard to read because they must pass through the many folds of the brain and then the skull, so they are interpreted with an algorithm that Dr. Low first created for his Ph.D., earned in 2007 at the University of California, San Diego. (The original research, published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was done on zebra finches.)
About the Hawking experiment, he said, “The idea is to see if Stephen can use his mind to create a consistent and repeatable pattern that a computer can translate into, say, a word or letter or a command for a computer.”
The researchers traveled to Dr. Hawking’s offices in Cambridge, England, fitted him with the iBrain headband and asked him “to imagine that he was scrunching his right hand into a ball,” Dr. Low said. “Of course, he can’t actually move his hand, but the motor cortex in his brain can still issue the command and generate electrical waves in his brain.”
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