An online brain-computer interface based on shifting attention to concurrent streams of auditory stimuli

  • Hill N
  • Schölkopf B
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We report on the development and online testing of an EEG-based brain-computer interface (BCI) that aims to be usable by completely paralysed users—for whom visual or motor-system-based BCIs may not be suitable, and among whom reports of successful BCI use have so far been very rare. The current approach exploits covert shifts of attention to auditory stimuli in a dichoticlistening stimulus design. To compare the efficacy of event-related potentials (ERPs) and steadystate auditory evoked potentials (SSAEPs), the stimuli were designed such that they elicited both ERPs and SSAEPs simultaneously. Trial-by-trial feedback was provided online, based on subjects’ modulation of N1 and P3 ERP components measured during single 5-second stimulation intervals. All 13 healthy subjects were able to use the BCI, with performance in a binary left/right choice task ranging from 75% to 96% correct across subjects (mean 85%). BCI classification was based on the contrast between stimuli in the attended stream and stimuli in the unattended stream, making use of every stimulus, rather than contrasting frequent standard and rare “oddball” stimuli. SSAEPs were assessed offline: for all subjects, spectral components at the two exactly-known modulation frequencies allowed discrimination of pre-stimulus from stimulus intervals, and of left-only stimuli from right-only stimuli when one side of the dichotic stimulus pair was muted. However, attention-modulation of SSAEPs was not sufficient for single-trial BCI communication, even when the subject’s attention was clearly focused well enough to allow classification of the same trials via ERPs. ERPs clearly provided a superior basis for BCI. The ERP results are a promising step towards the development of a simple-to-use, reliable yes/no communication system for users in the most severely paralysed states, as well as potential attention-monitoring and - training applications outside the context of assistive technology.

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