Mind reader: A consumer EEG device serves up rich new troves of scientific data

A consumer device designed to help users focus their thoughts is also generating valuable data for neuroscience research.

A team of McMaster and industry researchers is using data collected by a wireless brain-sensing headband called Muse to shed new light on what happens to our thinking processes as we age, for example, or how women and men process thoughts differently. Their work is published in the journal eNeuro.

The device, developed by Toronto’s InteraXon, is fitted with four electrodes. It registers and transmits the strength and amplitude of brain waves that reveal, for example, whether thinking is scattered or focused.

Muse shows users real-time information about their brain signals on their tablets or smartphones, creating a real-time feedback loop that they use to train themselves to reach a state of mindfulness and focus.

Users also have the option to share their electroencephalographic (EEG) data for research purposes, on a secure, anonymous basis. The manufacturer makes the resulting database available to qualified researchers, providing scientists an unprecedented snapshot of what is happening in the minds of thousands of people.

Traditional EEG monitoring is cumbersome, laborious and time-consuming. It can take hours to test a single subject in a traditional EEG research lab.

“On a good day, you could run one session of one experiment on maybe three people in the lab. Using Muse, we had a chance to test 6,000 people in multiple sessions. That’s a lifetime’s work in a normal EEG lab,” says co-author Allison Sekuler, a McMaster professor of Psychology, Neuroscience and Behaviour. “The ability to be able test this many people at once, I think, is the future of where science is going. We’re merging big data and neuroscience.”

“It’s taking science outside of the lab and enabling us to look at the brain in the real world,” says co-author Ali Hashemi, a McMaster PhD student who works with Sekuler. “The large numbers of participants gave us the power to learn things we couldn’t have with traditional lab studies.”

The research describes new vistas of information opening with the availability of data from more than 6,000 adults — a number that has grown by more than 10 times since the research was conducted. (The paper is available here.)