Niels Birbaumer - psychologist for the brain
Niels Birbaumer is one of the leading figures in the history of brain-computer interfaces (BCI), which are direct communication devices between the brain and a computer. Birbaumer has been dealing with BCIs for as much as forty years. He believes in the power of BCIs, a power that is based on human imagination and is used to treat brain disturbances. The director of the Institute of Medical Psychology and Behavioural Neurology in Tübingen was awarded the prestigious Leibniz Prize in 1995 for his pioneering work on BCIs.
The Leibniz Prize is only one of many awards that decorate the walls of Birbaumer’s office. And another new award – the Fürst Donnersmarck Foundation Research Prize - will soon join the impressive number of prizes Birbaumer has received. Birbaumer received the prize for his achievements in the field of cognitive neurosciences and for the scientific and interdisciplinary cooperation with the group of researchers led by Professor Leonardo Cohen from the National Institute of Health in Bethesda (USA).
It all began in Wien, where Birbaumer studied psychology in the 1960s. “Brain research was a natural part of psychology studies,” said Birbaumer who continued pursuing this idea when he moved to Tübingen in 1975. “We wanted to trigger learning processes in the brain with the aim of permanently affecting its plasticity.” Back then, this was a completely new approach; previously it was believed that only pharmaceuticals could permanently trigger the reward and learning systems – and thoughts could not.
Birbaumer began experiments with paralysed stroke patients who had been unable to move for ten years and achieved positive results with BCIs. Patients were required to imagine that they were clenching their hands, to cite just one example. “Thinking a particular thought triggers electrical and electromagnetic fields that are transferred to the central areas of the cerebrum,” explained Birbaumer. The magnetic fields and electrical voltages were transferred to a computer screen by way of electrode caps worn by the patients. The patients were then able to see for themselves the brain regions that were activated. Once a thought had managed to activate the brain area that controls real movement, the second step was initiated: cables attached to the computer transferred the impulses to prostheses that carried out the hand movement. Birbaumer found that by pure imagination, patients were able to trigger movement.
“Special training programmes helped the stroke victims to eventually regain power of their hands,” said Birbaumer. These programmes worked as follows: patients put their hands into the finger straps of the prostheses. This enabled them to carry out guided movements, which were repeated for as long as they needed before they managed to move their hands without the straps – and the reward system worked. The process of illustrating brain activity using real-time displays of e.g. electroencephalography is known as biofeedback or neurofeedback. “We saw some progress in almost all patients,” said Birbaumer also highlighting that this type of research was made possible by a special measurement computer that he developed in cooperation with an American colleague. This computer, a magnetoencephalograph, is unique in Europe.
Learning processes in the brain as an alternative to drugs
However, Birbaumer pointed out that excessively high expectations and hopes should not be pinned on such learning systems. “This is a very tiring activity. Patients are usually exhausted after one hour of training.” Birbaumer further explained that BCIs are currently only able to help patients carry out simple tasks, for example to feed themselves. Nevertheless, BCIs still provide a better quality of life.
“The method needs to work at home, in the family environment,” said Birbauer who has another idea that might some stage in the future be turned into reality. The idea is to implant electrodes into the brain where the electrodes capture thoughts and transfer them to chips implanted in a patient’s fingertips. This idea has the advantage that patients would no longer need prostheses and drugs; surgery to implant the chips would be the only intervention required. However, for the time being this idea is just a pipe dream. Birbaumer’s main message is this: “In future, not all diseases such as epilepsy, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and stroke will need to be treated with drugs; some of them will also be able to be treated through learning processes in the patients’ brains.”
Birbaumer believes that this would help many thousands of people whose dysfunctions have been considered untreatable. Not just elderly people suffering from typical age-related disorders, but also young people. Birbaumer used BCI to treat children with attention deficit disorders with the result that the children no longer had to depend on Ritalin. The neuroscientist also succeeded in helping locked-in syndrome patients to communicate again. Patients with this disorder are fully awake and aware, but cannot move or communicate verbally. Using BCIs, Birbaumer and his colleagues trained locked-in patients who eventually learned to select single letters on the computer screen, and some of them even managed to compose entire words.
“In future, I am intending to mainly focus on patients suffering from locked-in syndrome,” said Birbaumer explaining that he will use the prize money from the BCI Research Award for this purpose. Niels Birbaumer and his colleague Surjo R. Soekadar received the 2012 BCI Research Award with a purse of 3,000 USD for their work on the rehabilitation of chronic stroke patients.
Birbaumer finances his ten co-workers with research grants and donations. Birbaumer, who is now 67, keeps himself mentally fit by translating Italian poems. And he does not like to be too close to the university, which is why he has chosen to live in the small rural town of Mössingen, just a few kilometres from the university in Tübingen. Asked why he chose Mössingen, Birbaumer said: “I like to talk to people not involved in the academic world.”
Prof. Dr. Niels Birbaumer
University of Tübingen, Faculty of Medicine
Institute of Psychology and Behavioural Biology
Tel.: +49 (0)7071/ 297 4219
Fax: +49 (0)7071/ 297 5956