Brain-Computer Interfacing using Modulations of Alpha Activity Induced by Covert Shifts of Attention
Background Visual brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) often yield high performance only when targets are fixated with the eyes. Furthermore, many paradigms use intense visual stimulation, which can be irritating especially in long BCI sessions. However, BCIs can more directly directly tap the neural processes underlying visual attention. Covert shifts of visual attention induce changes in oscillatory alpha activity in posterior cortex, even in the absence of visual stimulation. The aim was to investigate whether different pairs of directions of attention shifts can be reliably differentiated based on the electroencephalogram. To this end, healthy participants (N = 8) had to strictly fixate a central dot and covertly shift visual attention to one out of six cued directions. Results Covert attention shifts induced a prolonged alpha synchronization over posterior electrode sites (PO and O electrodes). Spectral changes had specific topographies so that different pairs of directions could be differentiated. There was substantial variation across participants with respect to the direction pairs that could be reliably classified. Mean accuracy for the best-classifiable pair amounted to 74.6%. Furthermore, an alpha power index obtained during a relaxation measurement showed to be predictive of peak BCI performance (r = .66). Conclusions Results confirm posterior alpha power modulations as a viable input modality for gaze-independent EEG-based BCIs. The pair of directions yielding optimal performance varies across participants. Consequently, participants with low control for standard directions such as left-right might resort to other pairs of directions including top and bottom. Additionally, a simple alpha index was shown to predict prospective BCI performance.