BLACKSBURG, Va. — As we sleep, our minds are still active. Recently, Virginia Tech College of Science assistant professor in the School Neuroscience Sujith Vijayan was awarded a $696,000 National Science Foundation CAREER award to research the brain computer interface (BCI) — whether computers can take brain signals during sleep and use them to complete a set of tasks.
BCIs allow people to control external devices, such as a wheelchair or screen cursor, using nothing but their brain activity. As a result, BCI technology may improve the quality of life for countless people disabled by neuromuscular disorders such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) or a spinal cord injury.
The brain needs sleep to master newly learned skills
Past research shows people who get a whole night’s sleep after learning a new skill perform better than others who learned the skill but did not sleep on it. Exposure to odors and sounds during sleep impacts brain activity and may enhance your brain’s processing of new skills and memories.
Professor Vijayan’s work will focus specifically on the impact of sleep on BCI learning, as well as any potential ways to speed up learning while taking a snooze. Until now, animal studies were the only research available on BCI and sleep. However, these studies showed promise that improvements in learning could also translate to humans.
The research will explore how sleep affects learning
Another goal in Professor Vijayan’s research is understanding how sleep affects the learning of BCI tasks. He hopes to unravel the mystery and how playing sounds while asleep enhances BCI learning.
“Although BCIs are gaining more traction in clinical settings, current applications often require intensive training to master,” Professor Vijayan says in a press release. “If we could accelerate the learning of BCI applications through interventions that enhance natural sleep processes, it could improve the lives of people living with these frustrating conditions.”
Besides these goals, Professor Vijayan also believes his future work will help clarify the role sleep plays in learning and memory development.
“BCIs allow us to choose what features of brain activity and at what locations in the brain control a task, and we can then look at how the chosen activity is transformed through sleep. We can also examine how perturbations in the mapping that controls the BCI application differentially affect the underlying neural systems and impact learning. BCI applications really present a powerful tool for studying how sleep enhances learning and memory,” he adds.
Creating tools to study the brain during sleep
One experiment is already starting in which researchers will ask study participants to move a cursor on a computer screen using only their brain activity. While that happens, researchers will record participants’ brain activity during the task and when they sleep that evening using an EEG. Some patients will undergo more invasive procedures where researchers will implant intracranial depth electrodes to better record brain signals. The data researchers hope to collect will formulate computational models that capture several patterns in brain activity.
If successful, Professor Vijayan plans to make his tools available as open-source software to help other researchers look into the brain and sleep.
“I am super excited about creating an exhibit that will give children a better appreciation of the importance of sleep,” Prof. Vijayan concludes. “It will also allow me to finally get some credibility in the eyes of my 8-year-old.”