The Unlock Project, launched in 2011, is a multi-university initiative (involving researchers from Boston University, Northeastern University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the University of Kansas) whose purpose is to provide brain-machine interface (BMI) technology to individuals suffering from locked-in syndrome (LIS), characterized by complete or near-complete loss of voluntary motor function with intact sensation and cognition. LIS is typically the result of brain stem stroke or late stage amyotrophic lateral schlerosis (ALS). Being locked in has been compared to being buried alive; sufferers of LIS often feel completely isolated from friends and family due to their inability to communicate.
Recent research breakthroughs involving BMIs (also referred to as brain-computer interfaces or neural prostheses) have advanced the technology to the point where relatively inexpensive, robust BMIs using electroencephalography (EEG) are now possible. We are developing such a BMI and making it available to locked-in patients through the Unlock Project. EEG is totally non-invasive, thus requiring no surgery. Electrodes are simply attached to the scalp to record neural signals that can be used to control a computer and other devices.
The Unlock Project BMI consists of an EEG system that is wirelessly connected to a laptop computer, along with peripheral hardware including an infrared remote control. The system also includes software to decode brain signals from the EEG system and use them to control computer “apps” that allow the user to control augmentative communication software and to remotely control televisions and other audio-visual devices. Other apps under development include internet browsing, email, and word processing apps.