Can we measure the activity of our brains through the skin? New research says “yes”.
Wearable technology has made some amazing advances in the past few years, and now researchers at NYU Tandon are adding a new item to that list. A team led by Rose Fakih, assistant professor of biomedical engineering, has developed a device that can measure mental activity using electrical processes on the skin. These processes, known collectively as the skin’s electrical activity (EDA), are influenced by brain activity, especially those related to the emotional state.
By tracking changes in the EDA, the device can capture internal stresses caused by a variety of factors such as pain, exhaustion, or mental stress.
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“Deducing autonomic nervous system activation from wearables in real time opens new opportunities for monitoring and improving mental health and cognitive engagement,” explains Professor Fakih.
The team has christened the Intelligent Multimodal Noninvasive Brain State Decoder for AdapTive Wearable Closed Arc Architectures, or MINDWATCH. The team explains that the ultimate goal is to create a wearable that can monitor a user’s mental state and provide suggestions on how best to return to a neutral or positive state of mind. For example, if it is discovered that the wearer is going through a high-risk period related to work StressHe can play some relaxing music or offer some other kind of help or intervention.
The core of the research is a new inference engine developed by Fakih along with PhD student and co-author Ravel Amin. This device can interpret EDA currents in the skin and use them to determine brain activity in real time with high accuracy and scalability, according to the researchers.
The team tested their device during an experiment with 26 healthy individuals, and demonstrated its ability to decode brain signals with high reliability. Unlike previous devices that were intended to perform the same role, which took minutes to take a single reading, the team’s design requires much less computational power – and as such it can make readings in a few seconds. This also means that the device can be made to be smaller than before.
Aside from helping us better deal with stress, the team hopes their devices will also help people keep better tabs on their performance and mental health. They envision the device as useful in managing autism, PTSD, excessive irritability, or suicidal tendencies, among others.
“An individual’s performance changes based on their cognitive participation and arousal levels.” Fakih says. For example, very low or very high levels of arousal can lead to poor performance. Hence, it is expected that. Ultimately, researchers can take advantage of inferred autonomic nervous system activation and decode excitability to develop interventions to improve productivity,” the team explains.
One application that the team is particularly pursuing at the moment is its use in the early diagnosis of disorders such as diabetic neuropathy. By monitoring EDA in the area of skin prone to neuropathy, the device can detect nerve damage associated with the condition and can help improve patient outcomes by allowing early detection and treatment.
The researchers are now working on a practical way to make this device truly wearable, by, for example, eliminating errors in measurements that could be caused by factors such as rapid movement or exercise.
Paper, “Physiological characterization of skin electrical activity enables inference of scalable real-time autonomic nervous system activation near real time” published in the magazine Computational Biology PLOS.