A brand new equipment and setup are now available to the researchers of ISR-Lisboa. An electroencephalogram, or EEG equipment, is a type of electrophysiological monitor that, by use of a cap with electrodes positioned in the scalp, allows the record of electric activity in the brain. Over a long period of time, and with the input of several Professors and collaborators, the decision was made to invest in this setup to provide an experimental infrastructure that could act as a lowest common denominator and be of interest to the biggest number of people. The EEG allows a focus on brain activity and since that is of interest to several people at ISR who work under the umbrella of cognition it is also a spark to facilitate collaboration.

Two aspects, in particular, make this equipment stand out:

First, the fact that it has active electrodes, which permit a microelectronic amplification of each electrode, resulting in less noise interference, something that is always a challenge in environments where noise from airplanes, people talking, or other mundane sounds, are almost impossible to reduce completely. With this kind of active electrodes, the outer effects are minimized and there’s an improved quality of the signal. Professor Patrícia Figueiredo, LaSEEB’s coordinator, explained:

“It’s always great to have better quality but it’s especially important if we want to measure very subtle brain activity, for instance when someone is moving. This allows for more flexibility – something very important when you’re studying more ‘natural’ environments – something particularly helpful in therapeutic approaches or social situations.”

This equipment is also completely wireless, light and doesn’t necessarily need to be connected to a computer. This advantage means that it’s possible to measure brain activity in less restricted situations. Other complementary sensors also evaluate components such as cardiac rhythm, galvanic skin response (a measure obtained from skin responses and stress indicators) accelerometers, temperature measures and so on. This way the peripheral signals are interpreted in an integrated manner, to complement the EEG readings.

“If the goal is to understand the relationship between brain and cardiac activity, for instance, it’s very important to do it in an integrated way. This equipment constitutes an upgrade for some people who already worked in the area, but there are also new projects being created while thinking of this infrastructure. Nowadays there are already plenty of similar equipments available, but this one offers quality without losing portability. It has 32 electrodes (with a goal to extend to 64) when most mobile equipments usually have 4 or 8. This not only enables people who are interested in neuroscientific questions to work towards learning how something is happening in the brain, it also permits the study of different subjects, athletes for instance, because of the mobility that the equipment offers.”

That’s also the purpose of MIG_N2 Treat, a three-year project that is currently in its first stage. “The goal is to develop a therapy for migraines by using neurofeedback as a tool. It consists of training brain activity, in this case, to improve when compared to a pathological pattern. Individuals receive feedback on their own brain activity, in real time, and with the complete setup this allows the treatment to be managed accordingly.” What’s new in this project is that it will use magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), performed on hospital patients, to inform the protocol of the EEG. Without the MRI’s information, it’s hard to know what to ‘train’ the EEG to do. In the case of patients who suffer from migraines, there’s a clear variation on the MRI, but it’s not practical to do improvement training with the MRI itself.

“The question is if its possible to translate the alterations measured in the MRI in terms of EEG signal. We think it is and if so we gain a way of training the EEG informatively.”

From this new equipment, there are also other projects being created, including collaborative ones with other groups. “It’s interesting to understand how an observer interprets the intention of a movement when someone is performing it. The moment the brain realizes that intention, it’s influenced by factors like the direction of gaze or other subtle factors and that kind of action understanding is interesting to implement in robots. On the other hand, it’s very informative to realize when, and maybe even where, that movement is processed in the brain. It´s a great bridge because LaSEEB is interested in knowing how the brain works and how we can interact with it, from a therapeutic point of view, while Vislab aims at understanding how to improve a robot’s behaviour, based on biological information.”