It was like a scene in “Stranger Things”.
A University of South Florida student donned a cap covered in tiny sensors that record electrical signals in the brain. Then he started staring at a computer screen.
The student, Tyree Lewis, was stoic. He crossed his hands in his lap and stared silently ahead.
But as Lewis sat motionless, a blank canvas on the nearby screen began to fill with shapes: red circles and triangles, green squares.
Lewis created art with just his mind. It’s a process called “brain painting”, when an individual mentally selects colors and shapes to create abstract digital images. It requires intense concentration.
Marvin Andujar, professor of computer science and engineering at USF, is studying whether students diagnosed with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, can use this futuristic technology to improve attention span and reduce need prescription medication, which can have side effects.
Lewis, a doctoral student working on the project in Andujar’s lab, conducted a brain exercise demonstration in June for Tampa Bay Times reporters. He doesn’t have ADHD.
“The overall goal of this project,” says Andujar, is to bring the brain painting tool “into the hands of people outside the lab.
“How can we help them form a kind of habit (where), while they improve their attention, at the same time they also improve their emotional state?”
‘We need it’
Andujar, a computer scientist at the USF College of Engineering and director of the Neuro-Machine Interaction Lab, previously focused on developing mind-controlled drones using brain-computer interfaces.
They allow users to operate drones with an electronic headband known as an electroencephalography system, which reads electrical signals in the brain. These signals are translated into commands that prompt the drones to move. This process requires the full attention of the participants to be successful.
In 2019, when showing off his drones at a business and technology summit in Tampa, Andujar said people with ADHD approached him and asked about the technology, saying it could help them. improve their short attention span. College students with ADHD have also expressed interest after seeing it used elsewhere.
“The community… was telling me, ‘We need it. It’s useful,” says Andujar.
ADHD is one of the most common mental health problems, according to the World Health Organization. It is usually diagnosed in children and often lasts into adulthood. In 2016, approximately 5.4 million children between the ages of 2 and 17 suffered from ADHD in the United States, representing approximately 8% of the age group.
At least 60% of children with the neurodevelopmental disease will experience symptoms as adults, researchers say. It is estimated that 2% to 8% of university students suffer from ADHD.
Symptoms include hyperactivity, impulsiveness, and difficulty paying attention. The condition is usually treated with behavioral therapy and prescription drugs such as Adderall, a drug that helps people focus.
Common Adderall side effects include decreased appetite and sleep problems.
During a German study in 2010, a group of patients with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, used brain-computer interface technology to paint the brain. He offered them a new form of creative expression.
So Andujar wondered: Could people with ADHD use brain paint to improve their attention span and emotional well-being — and minimize the amount of medication they need?
In 2020, the National Science Foundation funded Andujar’s brain painting research with an $80,000 grant. He and his lab have since collected data on eight USF students who have each used the brain paint technology six times. Two of the participants suffered from ADHD. The rest said they struggled with their attention spans.
Here’s how the brain exercise works: An individual straps on a $20,000 electrode cap studded with sensors, then sits down in front of a computer screen. Sometimes the subject also wears an Oculus Rift headset to paint in virtual reality.
The screen displays color, shape and control options. The sensors detect electrical signals in the brain when a participant looks at a specific option, ultimately prompting a blank canvas to fill with their selection.
Users need to be totally focused on their painting, says Andujar. They should not chat with friends or check their text messages. If they do, they probably won’t be able to paint what they want. This is because the sensors will not detect them focusing on the chosen option.
The process can be tiring for new participants, says Lewis.
Early results are promising, Andujar says. Five of the eight students noted slight improvements in their attention span.
Participants need an hour or two to create an initial brain painting. But the more technology they use, he says, the faster they get.
The researchers plan to recruit more USF students to continue collecting data. The team also needs to secure additional funding because most of its grant has been spent, Andujar says.
At some point, he wants to hold an art exhibition to showcase brain paintings.
But above all, Andujar says he hopes to turn the technology into an effective and affordable therapy for people with ADHD.
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