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Is Neural Activity Detected by ERP-Based Brain-Computer Interfaces Task Specific?

Wenzel, Markus A.; Almeida, Inês; Blankertz, Benjamin

Objective: Brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) that are based on event-related potentials (ERPs) can estimate to which stimulus a user pays particular attention. In typical BCIs, the user silently counts the selected stimulus (which is repeatedly presented among other stimuli) in order to focus the attention. The stimulus of interest is then inferred from the electroencephalogram (EEG). Detecting attention allocation implicitly could be also beneficial for human-computer interaction (HCI), because it would allow software to adapt to the user’s interest. However, a counting task would be inappropriate for the envisaged implicit application in HCI. Therefore, the question was addressed if the detectable neural activity is specific for silent counting, or if it can be evoked also by other tasks that direct the attention to certain stimuli. Approach: Thirteen people performed a silent counting, an arithmetic and a memory task. The tasks required the subjects to pay particular attention to target stimuli of a random color. The stimulus presentation was the same in all three tasks, which allowed a direct comparison of the experimental conditions. Results: Classifiers that were trained to detect the targets in one task, according to patterns present in the EEG signal, could detect targets in all other tasks (irrespective of some task-related differences in the EEG). Significance: The neural activity detected by the classifiers is not strictly task specific but can be generalized over tasks and is presumably a result of the attention allocation or of the augmented workload. The results may hold promise for the transfer of classification algorithms from BCI research to implicit relevance detection in HCI.
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Published in: PLOS ONE, 10.1371/journal.pone.0165556, Public Library of Science (PLoS)