Imagine if technology could be used to improve health conditions and allow people with disabilities to regain and augment lost function.

Hanna D’Souza, 15, along with her mother, volunteered in a demonstration by Professor Slawomir Nasuto, Dr Ioannis Zoulias and Maitreyee Wairagkar, from the University of Reading, which forms the basis of research aiming to do exactly that. The demonstration was part of one of the Christmas Lectures hosted by Professor Sophie Scott of University College London.

Professor Nasuto explained that the demo consisted of an integration of two separate demos - a steady state visually evoked potentials based Brain Computer Interface (SSVEP BCI) and a Human-Human Interaction system. The latter system is based on Functional Electrical Stimulation (FES) principle originally consisting of two sets of the EMG electrodes to be placed on two individuals - one would pick up muscle electrical activity as somebody performs a movement (muscle contraction) and as a result triggering an electrical stimulation of the muscles on the other participant. Ioannis Zoulias and Maitreyee Wairagkar developed a modified demo version which rather than using signals from muscle EMG activity from the first person, used signals electroencephalogram (EEG). Both demos are standard. What is interesting is their integration, as it in principle, allows for a combined technology in which e.g. a tetraplegic person with a spinal cord injury or post-stroke could use their own brain activity to activate their muscles.

Dr Zoulias added that, ‘The demo consisted of 3 parts: (i) a screen that showed two flashing lights of different speeds (frequencies), (ii) a brain activity (Electroencephalogram) recording and analysis program that could recognise through the brain activity which flashing speed was being observed by Hanna, and (iii) a muscle stimulation system which through electrical impulses can stimulate Hanna’s mother’s muscles from signals received by the brain analysis program. 
The flashing pattern shown in the screen travels from Hanna’s eyes to the back of the brain where the visual cortex, an area important for visual processing, is situated. The flashing pattern observed excites the neurons there at exactly the same frequency as it flashes. The electrodes situated just above that part of the brain pick up this activity.

By measuring the strength of the activity and comparing it against activity from a period where no flashing was being observed (“rest period”) we can detect if a particular flashing light is observed. This last step, comparing the brain activity against the rest period, is very important as our brains are always active. Activity of various frequency is present throughout the brain and it’s the more than “normal” frequency specific activity that detects which light is observed.’

The demonstration’s success hints towards the future of this technology and how it could become ubiquitous in daily life in order to help patients with spinal cord injury. Currently, work with spinal cord injury patients is already pursued by the Functional Electrical Stimulation lab as part of Biomedical Engineering research at the University of Reading, which offers an exciting opportunity for investigating the potential of technologies demonstrated at the Christmas Lectures.

Professor Scott, felt that the experiment was quite stressful as there was lots to get right but she was happy that the experiment was so successful. Asked about the importance of girls’ participation in science, she concluded that diversity in science is essential as we need as many talented people as possible in science and so it’s important that we don’t send the message that it’s only for boys. 

After the demonstration, Hanna said, 'I feel very privileged to have been able to contribute to this amazing scientific experiment. I aspire to be a doctor and it has opened my eyes as to how science is changing the face of medicine.'

Aired on BBC4 on 27/12/2017, available on BBC iPlayer,

by Zahra D'Souza, Sydenham High School