Brain Scans to Go: Exploring Arts, Health and Technology at MoBI Conference

MoBI Brain on Art

In June, a diverse group of engineers, biomedical researchers, artists and clinicians gathered in Cancun, Mexico for the 2019 International Graphonomics Conference on Mobile Brain-Body Imaging, Neuroscience of Art, Innovation and Creativity. Each year, participants gather to explore the intersection of arts and science through the lens of contemporary and portable neuroimaging. These innovative technologies, commonly referred to as Mobile Brain-Body Imaging (MoBI), are poised to accelerate neuroaesthetics and biomedical research.

The meeting is an ongoing collaboration between the International Graphonomics Society (IGS) and the University of Houston NSF IUCRC BRAIN Center with funding from the National Science Foundation and several industry partners that develop and manufacture wearable technologies.

Measuring What Moves Us

The primary focus of the conference was how neurotechnologies can be used across a wide range of fields, including neuroscience, engineering, the arts, and graphonomics (the specialized study of handwriting). One thread connecting each of these areas is the study of movement.

In order to deepen our understanding of what’s happening in the brain, neuroscientists believe we need to get moving. When we actively engage with our environment through movement, our brain activity changes significantly, shaping both our perception and behavior.

Traditional imaging methods, such as fMRI, CT, and PET scans, limit what researchers can observe to the lab. Their subjects must remain as still as possible for the imaging to accurately measure brain activity. But MoBi is changing that.

MoBI technologies measure brain activity and body movements simultaneously.  Gathering and analyzing both sensory and movement data would improve our understanding of how neural, emotional, and cognitive systems in the brain interact in real-world environments. This opens up the possibility of monitoring the brain during activities such as art-making, neurorehabilitation, and related therapeutics.

Applying Neurotechnologies to Health Research

At the conference, several panels explored these advances in imaging technology including A Roadmap for Wearable Neurotechnology and Society and Noninvasive Brain-Machine Interfaces: From Basic to Clinical Applications. Panel members included robotics expert Jose Azorin, who educated the audience on the primary types of brain technology: Invasive and Non-Invasive Brain Machine Interfaces (BMI) and Brain Computer Interfaces (BCI), which enable a bi-directional connection between a wired brain and an external device like an EEG or a prosthetic leg.

Engineer Alex Lechner, from the Austrian wearable technology manufacturer g.tec, presented their collaboration with medical professionals to enhance treatment for uncommunicative or ‘locked-in’ patients. Patients with locked-in syndrome are conscious but suffer complete paralysis of nearly all their muscles, leaving them immobile and voiceless.

Previous studies using fMRI have shown that locked-in patients can, in fact, perceive visual movement, which alters their brainwave activity (Monti et. al, 2010). BCI technologies produced by  g.tec allow researchers to explore patient responses to tactile stimulation such as vibrations and potentially open up new avenues to connect with locked-in patients.

Peeking Inside the Brain on the Arts

MoBI is useful tool for neuroaesthetics research as well, allowing scientists to study brain processes and functions involved in arts experiences and the resulting impact to our health and well-being.

In an interactive exhibition of technologies made by mBrainTrain, biomedical engineer Pavle Mijović emphasized the importance of portability for brain measurement devices. mBrainTrust has recently manufactured wearable headphones that allow researchers to track brain dynamics without cumbersome headgear and the consequent biases from restricting natural movement. These headphones potentially could yield more authentic maps of brain activity during activities such as painting, singing or dancing. Using MoBI to map brain processes involved in active artistic expression may help reveal the healing mechanisms behind creative arts therapy interventions.

In addition, there are ongoing studies exploring the interaction between perception and emotion tied to aesthetic experiences. Professor Giuseppe Boccignone provided a compelling talk that introduced the audience to models of affective computing—the study and development of technologies that monitor or change human emotions. This area of inquiry is highly relevant to the study of neuroaesthetics, yet relatively untapped. If we explore how the brain processes emotions during aesthetic experiences, we can use that data to better understand how making art and music can be helpful in psychotherapy.

Portable brain imaging may also enhance our understanding of the experience of beholding art. Jessica Ruhle of the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University suggested many potential uses of MoBI technology in a museum setting to learn more about viewer experiences and how these insights might inform museum programming for people with neurological disorders like dementia.

Wearable technology has the potential to significantly improve the scientific study of neuroscience, art, and related therapeutics. This emerging technology complements translational research in neuroaesthetics, such as Impact Thinking, and provides raw, accessible data to scientists. Collaboration between MoBi manufacturers, engineers, researchers and clinicians will help us collectively move forward in our study of how the arts influence our health and well-being.

Written and reported by IAM Lab Contributor Juliet King ATR-BC, LPC, LMHC.  Juliet King is currently an Associate Professor of Art Therapy at The George Washington University in Washington, DC and Adjunct Associate Professor and Research Scientist at the IU School of Medicine Department of Neurology in Indianapolis, IN.

Image: University of Houston Brain-Machine Interface Lab

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