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.
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