Wearable EEG research: whole University becomes a neuroscience laboratory
A new research project from the School of Psychology at the University of Surrey will put portable, wearable EEG equipment through its paces in everyday situations around campus, breaking the reliance on artificially controlled laboratory settings.
An ERASMUS-facilitated collaboration between the University of Surrey's Brain & Behaviour Group and Germany's University of Oldenburg will test a sophisticated new technique that allows neuroscientists to gather data on real brain behaviour in real time in the real world. They will do this by taking advantage of EEG systems designed specifically to be worn during everyday activity and the development of specialised software for the analysis of artefact-contaminated data.
The evolution of new neuroimaging techniques over the last couple of decades has brought huge advances in understanding of brain structures, functions and processes, but neuroscience has often found it difficult to study natural cognition in the messy environments to be found outside the laboratory.
To examine what the brain is doing during a particular physical behaviour or cognitive process, neuroscientists measure specific mental activities through the precise detection of certain signals. But the measurable signals that they want to examine are just one of a huge number that the brain routinely emits as it goes about its complicated business.
Examining how the brain works in normal settings has proved extremely difficult.
To try to limit these extraneous bits of information (or 'artefacts'), subjects participating in laboratory experiments are usually asked to remain perfectly still and to concentrate their gaze on one spot. They may even be asked to relax their jaw and neck muscles and to blink only during 'blink holidays' that are built into the experiment.
Much fascinating and vital new knowledge has been acquired under these conditions, but the necessary next step of examining how the brain works in more normal settings has proved extremely difficult.
Wearable EEG (electroencephalography) skullcaps have been around for a while, but they have largely remained in the laboratory because the physical and mental activity required merely to navigate our way down the street would generate an overwhelming amount of data. (Think of all the motor processes involved in movement and the stimuli arriving via our senses, not to mention the complicated brain functions of remembering where we are going and deciding whether we need to turn left or right.)
A sophisticated new technique allows neuroscientists to gather data on real behaviour in real time in the real world.
But following successful development and validation of mobile EEG equipment in Oldenburg under Professor Stefan Debener, the project team won just under £200,000 of research funding from the UK's Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) to examine the effect that carrying heavy equipment has on cognitive function. This funding has allowed the recruitment of a PhD candidate to work on the project under Professor Annette Sterr and Professor Paul Sauseng in Surrey's School of Psychology.
Operating in three phases over four years, researchers will first ask participants to perform a simple 'auditory oddball paradigm' task that will allow the team to test and refine the mobile EEG system. After that, the subjects will complete cognitive tasks on a tablet computer while walking around the University. Finally, EEG data will be collected while participants actively explore campus to find target locations where tasks will be required of them.
"This project will generate crucial new expertise in research methodology to underpin the next phase in neuroscience." - Prof. Annette Sterr, Brain & Behaviour group leader
In each case, the processes will be repeated while wearing a 20kg backpack to assess the impact of physical strain on brain function. Other projects include the use of mobile EEG to study natural cognition during wheelchair use and neurofeedback training.
Professor Sterr commented: “As well as helping DSTL with its specific knowledge requirements, this project will generate crucial new expertise in research methodology to underpin the next phase in neuroscience: moving out of the lab and into the everyday world.”