31 May 2016

Making the right decisions when the heat is on

Scientists in BCI lab

From left: Dr Caterina Cinel, Dr Luca Citi and Professor Riccardo Poli.

Discovering new methods to improve human decision-making during stressful situations is the focus of a major $11.25 million international research project involving the University.

The Essex team, led by Dr Luca Citi and Professor Riccardo Poli, will join scientists from seven other universities for the five-year-project, funded by the Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative (MURI).

The award, given by the US Department of Defense and the UK Ministry of Defence, aims to connect academics in neuroscience, machine learning and signal processing. The work will focus on the key challenge of developing brain-machine interfaces to enhance human decision-making under pressure.

The Essex team, based at the Essex Brain-Computer Interfaces (BCI) and Neural Engineering Laboratory, will draw on their expertise in researching how BCI can help both able-bodied people and people with disabilities.

Led by Dr Maryam Shanechi, from the University of Southern California, the project will also include the University of California Berkeley, Harvard University, New York University, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, Imperial College London, and University College London. It is thought to be first US-UK MURI-funded consortium.

The researchers will study how a person’s decision-making processes work and how humans integrate multisensory input such as visual and sound cues into one unified concept - such as how the brain integrates the sight of moving lips with the sound of speech to better recognise it.

Dr Citi explained: "In this project, we will try to make sense of the processes that take place in our brain while we acquire information about the world around us and try to build a coherent view of it in our mind. Unfortunately, the brain’s electric signals we record in our experiments are not able to tell us the full picture of exactly what is going on. Our challenge as scientists is therefore to make the best use of the most advanced signal processing and modelling techniques and to develop new ones to uncover and understand the underlying neural processes of the brain."

Professor Poli, who is also the project’s UK team leader, added: “This is a very interesting project for us at Essex. It will give us the opportunity to see how we can push BCI technology to new levels of sophistication.

“There is still a big gap between our understanding of neuroscience and making the technologies to enhance it. At Essex we have been at the forefront of researching how BCI technology can be used in everyday lives and this project will give us the opportunity to develop this area further.”

Multi-sensory expert Dr Caterina Cinel, who is part of the Essex team, said: “There are still many unanswered questions in neuroscience. This research project will help enhance our understanding of multi-sensory perception and will make it possible for people to improve their cognition and perception ability when engaging in demanding and complex tasks.”

The first step of the project will involve recording human neural activity in real-time, as people interact with a machine and then use that to estimate a person’s alertness or fatigue, their focus and how confident that individual might be when a quick decision is required.

The next step will be to create a brain-computer interface incorporating estimated mental states such as situational awareness, confidence in a decision and even the anticipation of a subject’s action. The results of their research could be applied to enhance pilots’ decision-making by selecting how information is presented to them on a plane’s dashboard, or to enhance how a driver interacts with the vehicle’s console when there are several distractions.

The Essex team will test several hundred people in the BCI lab on our Colchester Campus, where they will face certain tasks with different distractions. The results will then help develop new methodologies for modelling to further understand the brain’s decision-making and multi-sensory processing and will be used to build direct brain-computer interfaces that enhance human decision making under pressure.

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