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NIH Funded UMN Researchers to Study Meditation and Brain-Computer Interface

November 4, 2016

The National Institutes of Health recently funded a team of University of Minnesota researchers to study mind control using meditation, which is led by Dr. Bin He, director of the UMN’s Institute for Engineering in Medicine, Distinguished McKnight University Professor of Biomedical Engineering, and Medtronic-Bakken Endowed Chair for Engineering in Medicine. Dr. Bin He has pioneered the noninvasive brain-computer interface (BCI) technology, and has established a novel approach for improving learning of and performance of BCI with Mind-Body Awareness Training (MBAT). Dr. He’s original idea was published in 2014 in the journal Technology. In a recently funded 5 year $1.9 M National Institutes of Health research grant, Dr. He (PI) and his multi-disciplinary research team, which is comprised of Stephen Engel (Co-PI), Psychology, and Mary Jo Kreitzer, Center for Spirituality & Healing (Co-I), will investigate Mind-Body Awareness Training (MBAT) for improving learning of and performance with BCI. 

This cutting-edge technology holds the promise to assist numerous patients suffering from neuromuscular disorders and other brain diseases. The proposed research will significantly enhance the brain-computer interface use through mind-body intervention, and thus will benefit numerous patients, including disabled patients, to enhance control over their environment.

“In our noninvasive BCI technology, we use motor imagination to general control signals that can be decoded to “read” the intention of a subject. MBAT can improve the capability to generate distinctive EEG signals thus helping improving the learning and performance of BCI,” says Dr. He.

MBAT has shown large effects upon both cognitive abilities and brain activity. MBAT emphasizes meditation practice that focuses on body states, and it has been shown to enhance factors that are most critical for sensorimotor- rhythm-based BCI: sustained attention, motor imagery, and generation of rhythmic neural signals. BCI systems allow users to interact with their environment by bypassing muscular control to tap directly into the users' thoughts.

Recently, Dr. He and his students have developed a 3-dimensional continuous BCI system to allow human subjects to control the flight of a flying robot from noninvasive brain waves. Click the video to see the mind controlled flying robot. In addition, the role of Mind-Body Awareness Training (MBAT) through Yoga Nidra practice was used to determine if it will improve the ability for subjects to concentrate on controlling the initial learning of a sensorimotor and improve the performance of BCI. The results showed the MBAT cohort achieved BCI competency significantly faster that the control cohort. In addition, the MBAT cohort demonstrated enhanced ability to control the system on various measures of BCI performance, which improved significantly more over time when compared to the control group.

“In our pilot study we demonstrated the feasibility of using MBAT to improve BCI performance in subjects with long term Yoga or meditation experience. In the newly funded NIH grant, we will conduct systematic investigation on the effect of a type of MBAT, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction on BCI including in subjects who never had Yoga or meditation experience previously,” says Dr. He. “Rigorous experiments will be conducted using neuroimaging and psychophysical tests.”

According to Dr. Kreitzer,“Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) is a well researched intervention known to impact changes in the structure and the function of the brain as well as reduce stress and improve symptoms associated with many chronic diseases. A new frontier of mindfulness research is examining the mechanisms of mindfulness through the study of brain activity and in the case of our study, seeing whether MBSR can improve performance-based tasks.”

The BCI study is one example of the type of important neuroimaging research that is encouraged within IEM, where resources are awarded to innovative researchers that are interested in facilitating multidisciplinary collaborations between physicians and clinicians in the Academic Health center, engineers in the College of Science & Engineering, and the well-established medical technology industry.

Dr. He says, “Our goal is to find a precise, personalized, affordable solution to tomorrow’s medicine and health care.”


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