Towards an intuitive communication-BCI: decoding visually imagined characters from the early visual cortex using high-field fMRI

Biomed Phys Eng Express. 2019 Aug 2;5(5):055001. doi: 10.1088/2057-1976/ab302c. eCollection 2019 Aug.


Brain-computer interfaces aim to provide people with paralysis with the possibility to use their neural signals to control devices. For communication, most BCIs are based on the selection of letters from a (digital) letter board to spell words and sentences. Visual mental imagery of letters could offer a new, fast and intuitive way to spell in a BCI-communication solution. Here we provide a proof of concept for the decoding of visually imagined characters from the early visual cortex using 7 Tesla functional MRI. Sixteen healthy participants visually imagined three different characters for 3, 5 and 7 s in a slow event-related design. Using single-trial classification, we were able to decode the characters with an average accuracy of 54%, which is significantly above chance level (33%). Furthermore, the imagined characters were classifiable shortly after cue onset and remained classifiable with prolonged imagery. These properties, combined with the cortical location of the early visual cortex and its decodable activity, encourage further research on intracranial interfacing using surface electrodes to bring us closer to such a visual imagery based BCI communication solution.