UTSA researching how to control vehicles using the brain


UTSA is rapidly devouring brains. Within the last few months, two UTSA researchers received grants to study the human brain.

Dr. Fidel Santamaria, a biology professor, received $300,000 from the National Science Foundation (NSF), and Dr. Yufei Huang, an electrical engineering professor, received $400,000 from the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) to purchase two high-performance electroencephalogram (EEG) systems — machines that record the brain’s electrical activity.

This research is part of the White House’s BRAIN Initiative, an initiative begun by President Obama to further study the brain and founded in hopes that it would accomplish as much for science and medicine as the Human Genome Project has.

Santamaria’s grant was one of 36 grants awarded by the NSF that furthers the White House’s BRAIN Initiative through the study of “how complex behaviors emerge from the activity of brain circuits.”

“You never know if you can get these grants or not; but you try, and sometimes you get them,” said Santamaria.

“The brain is really the essential part of the human,” said Huang, “so understanding how the brain functions is the ultimate goal of biology.”

Huang also received a grant from the Army Research Laboratory in addition to his grant from the DOD to research brain-machine interaction using the EEG machines.

The goal of the project is to develop a way for soldiers to control small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) with EEG technology. Currently, Huang’s graduate student, Mauricio Merino, is planning to build a helmet equipped with an EEG machine that would detect signals from the brain to control the navigation of the UAVs.

Devices currently exist that allow humans to use EEG technology to move objects such as wheelchairs and control characters in online games through “abstract commanding.” However, nothing similar to the complexity of moving a UAV currently exists.

“We are basically treading new areas,” said Huang. “There’s almost no existing research on this system that (Merino’s) building.”

Huang, Merino and their team will be debuting their first simple prototype — that moves a small quadcoptor up and down — in a week or so.

“We have to begin simple,” said Merino. “But we will have to do more than just land and take off; eventually, you want more and more abstract commands.”

After their presentation, Merino and Huang will continue to build on the complexity of their machine by completing more tests with the EEG machines. The tests consist of subjects watching flashing lights on a computer screen while the EEG machine records their brains’ electrical activity.

The lab will work on this project for the next year and a half. If the project is successful, the technology will impact medical and commercial entities, as well as effect military development and use.

Santamaria’s research also has broad implications. Santamaria, along with two other UTSA professors – Dr. Todd Troyer and Dr. Nicole Wicha — will be applying theories they developed for the brain at the single cell level to more complex ideas such as how a bird sings or how a human develops language.

“We want to describe behavior of the neural system from molecules all the way to human language comprehension with the same theoretical framework,” said Santamaria.

The researchers will first study the singing of Bengalese finches and try to apply the theoretical framework, or power laws, to how they learn and produce songs. They will also study human language through the use of EEG machines and try to find power laws in hopes of predicting how the brain will work.

“Everyone says that the brain is complex,” said Santamaria on the motivation for his study. “But what is complexity? Can we put a number to that? And how does that benefit brain function?”