Linking the human brain with a computer makes good science fiction and has inspired ventures such as Elon Musk’s Neuralink, which aims to let you control devices with electronics implanted in your brain. Other less adventurous, and invasive, trials have outfitted subjects with skullcaps studded with electrodes.
Researchers at China’s are doing away with that complexity and replacing it all with a ribbon that slips into your ear.
This new “ear worm” is a two-layer strip about a tenth of an inch wide and not quite two inches long. It twists into a tightly wound spiral that can be fitted inside the ear canal.
Once in place, the ribbon is heated by an external source. That causes the “actuation layer” to unfurl and press the strip against the walls of the ear canal, allowing sound waves to pass through so the wearer can hear normally.
The layer in contact with the ear canal holds electroencephalogram (EEG) sensors. EEGs measure the brain’s electrical activity and the ribbon’s EEG layer can pick up brain signals through the wall of the ear canal. Those signals can be sent by wire to an external reader.
In tests, the device proved to give readings identical to those from conventional EEG equipment 95 percent of the time when both were tested on the same patient at the same time.
Wearers reported being able to wear the ribbon comfortably for long periods. It can easily be removed by tugging on the end and sliding it out.
TRENDPOST: Initially, the ribbon could be used to detect signs of epilepsy or other brain abnormalities, or to monitor a person’s sleep patterns.
As electronics and brain science advance, more complex brain patterns—perhaps even words and images—could be deciphered through the ribbon’s future versions. Ultimately, perhaps words or ideas could be translated into brain signals and piped into a person’s mind using the same relatively simple avenue.
Tsinghua University’s new ear-worn brain-computer interface.
Photo: Tsinghua University