It was like a scene in Stranger Things.
A University of South Florida student dons a cap covered with tiny sensors that record electrical signals in the brain. Then he started staring at a computer screen.
College student Tyree Lewis was stoic. He folded his hands in his lap and silently gazed ahead.
But as Lewis sat motionless, a blank canvas on the nearby screen began to fill with shapes: red circles and triangles, green squares.
Lewis created art using only his mind. It’s a process called “brain painting” in which a person mentally selects colors and shapes to create abstract digital images. It requires intense concentration.
USF computer science and engineering professor Marvin Andujar examines whether college students diagnosed with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder or ADHD can use this futuristic technology to improve attention span and reduce the need for prescription drugs, which can have side effects.
Lewis, a graduate student supporting the project in Andujar’s lab, conducted a demonstration of the brain exercise for Tampa Bay Times reporters in June. He doesn’t have ADHD.
“The overall goal of this project,” Andujar said, is to eventually “get the brain-painting tool into the hands of people outside of the lab.”
“How can we help them form some kind of habit (where) while improving their attention while also improving their emotional state?”
Andujar, a computer scientist at the USF College of Engineering and director of the Neuro-Machine Interaction Lab, previously focused on developing mind-controlled drones with brain-computer interfaces.
They allow users to operate drones with an electronic headband known as an electroencephalography system that reads electrical signals in the brain. These signals are translated into commands that tell the drones to move. This process requires the full attention of the participants to be successful.
When Andujar demonstrated his drones at a business and technology summit in Tampa in 2019, Andujar said people with ADHD came up to him asking about the technology and saying it could help them improve their short attention spans. College students with ADHD also expressed interest after seeing it being used elsewhere.
“The community…told me, ‘We need this. This is useful,'” Andujar said.
According to the World Health Organization, ADHD is one of the most common mental illnesses. It is typically diagnosed in children and often lasts into adulthood. In 2016, an estimated 5.4 million children ages 2 to 17 in the United States had ADHD, accounting for approximately 8% of the age group.
Researchers say at least 60% of children with the neurodevelopmental disorder will experience symptoms as adults. An estimated 2% to 8% of college students have ADHD.
Symptoms include hyperactivity, impulsivity, and difficulty paying attention. The condition is usually treated with behavioral therapy and prescription medications such as Adderall, a drug that helps people focus.
Common side effects of Adderall include decreased appetite and trouble sleeping.
During a German study in 2010, a group of patients with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, used brain-computer interface technology for brain painting. It offered them a new form of creative expression.
So Andujar wondered: Could people with ADHD use Brain Painting to improve their attention spans and emotional well-being — and minimize the amount of medication they need?
In 2020, the National Science Foundation funded Andujar’s brain painting research with an $80,000 grant. Since then, he and his lab have collected data from eight USF students, who each used the brain-painting technology six times. Two of the participants had ADHD. The rest said they struggled with their attention spans.
Here’s how the brain exercise works: A person straps on a $20,000 electrode cap studded with sensors, then sits in front of a computer screen. Sometimes the subject will also wear an Oculus Rift headset to paint in virtual reality.
The screen displays color, shape, and control options. The sensors detect electrical signals in the brain when a participant stares at a particular option, eventually causing a blank canvas to fill with their selection.
Users need to be fully focused on their image, Andujar said. You shouldn’t be chatting with friends or checking their messages. If they do, they probably won’t be able to paint what they want. That’s because the sensors won’t detect them if they focus on their chosen option.
The process can be tiring for first-time participants, Lewis said.
Initial results are promising, Andujar said. Five of the eight students have noticed slight improvements in their attention spans.
Participants need one to two hours to create an initial brain image. But the more they use the technology, he said, the faster they get.
Researchers plan to recruit more USF students to continue collecting data. The team also needs to secure additional funding as most of its grant has been spent, Andujar said.
At some point he would like to hold an art exhibition to show brain images.
But most importantly, Andujar hopes to make the technology an effective and affordable therapy for people with ADHD.