The history of Brain-Computer Interfaces (BCIs) – Timeline

Researchers have already demonstrated the human neuroprosthetic control of computer cursors, robotic limbs, and speech synthesizers, using no more than 256 electrodes. These successes indicate that high fidelity information transfer between brains and machines is possible.

Traditionally, brain-computer interfaces (BCIs), also referred to as brain-machine interfaces (BMI), have been employed to help people with disabilities communicate or control prostheses. They enable humans to interact with their surroundings, without the involvement of peripheral nerves and muscles using control signals generated from electroencephalographic activity.

These hardware and software communications systems can be broadly classified depending on the electrodes’ placement to detect and measure neurons firing in the brain. In invasive methods, electrodes are inserted directly into the cortex, while in noninvasive systems, they are placed on the scalp and use electroencephalography or electrocorticography to detect neuron activity.

However, the development of BMI has been critically limited by the inability to record large numbers of neurons. Noninvasive approaches can record millions of neurons through the skull, but this signal can be distorted and nonspecific. Invasive electrodes, on the other hand, can record useful signals, but they are limited since they average the activity of thousands of neurons and cannot record signals deep in the brain.

Most BMIs use invasive techniques because the most accurate interpretation of neural representations requires the recording of potential for single action from neurons in distributed, functionally linked ensembles.

Though the basic research on brain-machine interfaces has moved at a stunning pace since the first experimental demonstration in 1999 that ensembles of cortical neurons could directly control a robotic manipulator, the history of BCI or BMI is not recent. This post presents a short timeline of BCIs to narrate its complete history.

The history of BCIs in timeline

Ancient Egypt: Large electric catfish were used to shock people and treat the arthritic pain. This was the first natural arthritis pain relief method.

First-century AD: Black torpedo fish or electric ray was used Romans to treat headaches. Scribonius Largus, a physician to Emperor Claudius, was a staunch advocate of the remedy.

The 1780s: Luigi Galvani of Bologna shows that muscle and nerve cells possess electrical force responsible for muscle contractions and nerve conduction.

1875: Dr. Richard Caton of Liverpool, UK, uses a galvanometer to observe electrical impulses from the surfaces of living rabbit and monkey brains.

1912: Ukrainian physiologist Vladimir Pravdich-Neminsky publishes the first animal electroencephalography (EEG).

1919: The Electreat, a TENS device, is patented by Charles Willie Kent and manufactured in Peoria, Illinois, USA.

1924: German physiologist and psychiatrist Hans Berger records the first human EEG.

1928: Australian Mark Lidwell uses an external cardiac pacemaker to save a child’s life.

1929: Hans Berger conducted the first experiments of Electroencephalography (EEG) on humans.

1935: Frederic Gibbs, Hallowell Davis, and William Lennox of Harvard Medical School report on the use of EEG to demonstrate epilepsy.

1952: Spanish neuroscientist José M Delgado begins implanting radio-equipped electrode arrays in animals and humans.

1957: André Djourno and Charles Eyriès perform the first direct electrical stimulation of the human auditory system. It is the first known cochlear implant.

1963: Natalia Petrovna Bekhtereva, a neuroscientist at the Institute of Experimental Medicine and the Academy of Medical Sciences in Leningrad, publishes a paper on the use of multiple electrodes implanted in sub-cortical structures for the treatment of hyperkinetic disorders.

1965: American composer Alvin Lucier uses EEG to compose music in Music for the Solo Performer. It is one of the earliest examples of a working brain-machine interface. In the same year, Gordon Moore writes a seminal paper on annual doubling in the number of components per integrated circuit.

1968: Robinson introduces the first metal microelectrode.

1969: American otologist William House installs the first cochlear implant that is not rejected by the patient’s system. Researcher Eberhard Fetz at the University of Washington in Seattle shows that a monkey can learn to control the needle of a meter using only its mind for the first time.

1970: Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency of USA initiates a program to explore brain communications using EEG.

1973: Professor Jacques Vidal of the University of California at Los Angeles coins the term ‘brain-computer interface’ and sets out the aims of the Brain-Computer Interface project to analyze EEG signals.

1976: UCLA’s Brain-Computer Interface Laboratory provides evidence that single-trial visual evoked potentials could be used as a communication channel effective enough to control a cursor through a two-dimensional maze.

1987: Phillip Kennedy builds the first intracortical brain-computer interface by implanting neurotrophic-cone electrodes into monkeys.

1988: EEG signals are used to control a mobile robot.

1997: The US Food and Drug Administration approves DBS for the treatment of essential tremor and Parkinson’s disease (followed by approval for dystonia in 2003 and epilepsy in 2018).

1998: Researchers at Emory University in Atlanta reported the installation of a brain implant that stimulates movement in a person with ‘locked-in syndrome.’

1999: Researcher Yang Dan at the University of California, Berkeley, decodes neuronal firings to reproduce images seen by cats.

2000: Researchers succeed in building a BCI that can reproduce owl monkey movements while the monkey operates a joystick or reaches for food.

2005: Tetraplegic Matt Nagle becomes the first person to control an artificial hand using a brain-computer interface (BCI) as part of Cyberkinetics’ BrainGate project.

2010: Approximately 220,000 people worldwide have cochlear implants implanted as the neuroprosthetic device that aims to restore hearing.

2011: O’Doherty shows a BCI with sensory feedback with rhesus monkeys through direct intracortical stimulation (ICMS).

2013: BrainGate patient demonstrates control of a robot prosthetic limb. FDA approves Argus II retinal implant system developed by Second Sight. FDA approves the NeuroPace RNS system of responsive deep brain stimulation (DBS).

2016: Entrepreneur Bryan Johnson launches Kernel73 ‘to develop technologies to improve and expand human cognition radically.’ Neuralink was founded by Elon Musk and others to develop ‘ultrahigh bandwidth brain-machine interfaces to connect humans and computers.’

2017: US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) launches a program to make neural implants that record high-fidelity signals from one million neurons. Facebook reveals that it is working on wearable interfaces to enable people to type using brain signals alone.

2018: Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, create the world’s smallest, most efficient implanted ‘neural dust’ wireless nerve stimulator.

2019: Researchers from UCSF demonstrate a BCI that uses deep learning methods to synthesize speech of patients with speech impairment caused by neurological disorders.


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