ECE senior helps break ground on innovative neuroengineering research


Megan Kelly, Coordinated Science Lab

ECE senior Martin McCormick has helped develop a new method that allows computers to decipher human thoughts.
ECE senior Martin McCormick has helped develop a new method that allows computers to decipher human thoughts.

ECE senior Martin McCormick once thought mind reading was a talent reserved for superheroes in the comics. But he’s not so sure anymore.

McCormick grew up fascinated by engineering innovations, especially in the area of signal processing. By the time he reached age 12, McCormick already wrote operating systems, programmed computers, dabbled with radio communication systems, and even built a satellite on his family’s roof.

But he didn’t become interested in neuroengineering, an interdisciplinary field that applies engineering principles to neuroscience, until he enrolled in a probability course with ECE Professor  Todd Prentice Coleman, who was working on a brain-computer interface project. Coleman knew of McCormick’s interest in signal processing and encouraged him to join the team, an honor usually reserved for graduate and post-doctoral students.

Todd Prentice Coleman
Todd Prentice Coleman

“When Martin tries to understand something, he stays on the grind until he is confident he understands what's going on,” said Coleman, a professor of electrical and computer engineering. “He finds things that are intriguing and independently tries to learn more about them. . . . In short, he's a model student.”

The project piqued McCormick’s interest, and he joined the small group of researchers exploring direct, noninvasive exchanges of communication between computers and the human mind. In other words, they were attempting to teach computers to process and, in a way, read people’s minds. When he first embarked on the project, McCormick was skeptical.

“I wasn’t convinced until I used it myself,” McCormick said. “What blew me away the most was that you could tell by just using it, that it’s picking up on your brain signals and responding based on what you’re thinking.”

Innovative thinking

McCormick and the team originally used a method called CSP to discover whether a computer can decipher specific human thoughts. However, he has since modified CSP and helped invent an improved method called CSAP.

“He’s a critical thinker and points out key observations people in the community have missed,” Coleman said. “This led to his development of a new signal processing approach that, according to our intermediate experimental results, beats out all of the previously published state-of-the-art signal processing algorithms for a certain type of brain-machine interface paradigm.”

To test the method, the experiment’s subject wears a cap with electrodes that are covered in conductive gel and connected to the computer. The voltage between different electrodes is measured, amplified and converted into a digital signal that the team analyzes mathematically.

The computer then prompts the subject to imagine moving either his left or right arm while not physically doing so. Different brain waves stimulate the electrodes depending on the direction an individual is imagining. The computer picks up on this and a ball pictured on the screen will move to the right if the subject is imagining his right arm moving and vice versa.

This can be used as a method of communication, particularly for those who may be disabled and unable to converse. Instead of a ball present on the screen, the letter ‘M’, a middle letter in the alphabet, is displayed, followed by a string of letters. By imagining oneself moving either to the left or to the right, the subject will prompt the letters on the screen to move to either the left or right of ‘M’ alphabetically, until the subject hits the right letter, which eventually leads to complete words and sentences with enough concentration.

Real-world applications

The research team hopes this innovation will someday help people with disabilities--for example, those with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease)--be able to communicate with others. In addition, this method has been tested to control wheelchairs and even remote-controlled planes. There are further plans to use this innovation in military applications, search and rescue operations and video gaming.

In the meantime, McCormick hopes to continue working on the project while applying to graduate schools for next year.

“I could easily see him going down the graduate school route, earning a Ph.D., and joining us in academia,” said Coleman, who is collaborating with Illinois faculty Tim Bretl, aerospace engineering, and Ed Maclin, psychology. “Or he just as easily might end up being an entrepreneur and succeeding in business. Or perhaps both. I think it is safe to say that Martin will succeed at whatever he puts his mind to.”