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Felix LB, Netto Ad, Ranaudo FS, Sá AMFLM. A spatial coherence-based vision-free brain-computer interface using auditory selective attention. MEDICALEXPRESS 2015;2(6):M150603



A spatial coherence-based vision-free brain-computer interface using auditory selective attention

Leonardo Bonato Felix1; Aluizio d'Affonsêca Netto2; Fernando de Souza Ranaudo1,2; Antonio Mauricio Ferreira Leite Miranda de Sá2

1.Universidade Federal de Viçosa, Departamento de Engenharia Elétrica, Viçosa, MG, Brazil
2. Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro. Programa de Engenharia Biomédica/COPPE, Rio de Janeiro, RJ, Brazil


Received in August 21 2015.
First Review in September 14 2015.
Accepted in September 25 2015.


INTRODUCTION: The development of Brain Computer Interfaces based on Auditory Selective Attention allows patients unable to voluntarily control eye movement to interact with the interface, because such systems are independent of vision. An alternative technique suitable for Brain Computer Interface applications is Spatial Coherence, an objective method to detect the side where a subject is focusing attention. This method takes into consideration the Coherence Function and the topographic distribution of responses between EEG electrodes. In this work, we further study the Information Transfer Rate and the effects of overlapping windows in the calculations. The idea behind the overlapping is to decrease the duration of the test in order to augment the Information Transfer Rate.
METHOD: EEG signals were collected from fourteen adult men aged between 19 and 28 years. Amplitude-modulated tones were used for stimulation, with 32 and 38 Hz modulation and 500 and 2000 Hz carrier frequencies, on the left and right ears, respectively. Spatial coherence was used in an online Brain Computer Interface system using auditory steady-state responses modulated by Auditory Selective Attention.
RESULTS: The obtained hit rates and the Information Transfer Rate may be considered appropriate, with a maximum value of 82% and 1.89 bits/min. The better detector regarding sensitivity versus specificity can be obtained by using a 50% overlap between consecutive data windows.
CONCLUSION: We conclude that the Spatial Coherence successfully detected the focus of attention, and it seemed useful as a classifier of the attention condition for vision-free Brain Computer Interface.

Keywords: Brain-Computer Interface; EEG; Spatial Coherence; Auditory selective attention.


O desenvolvimento de interfaces cérebro computador (BCI), com base em atenção seletiva auditiva (ASA), auxilia pacientes que não conseguem controlar voluntariamente o movimento do olho para interagir com interfaces visuais, uma vez que tais sistemas são independentes de visão.
A Coerência Espacial é técnica alternativa adequada para aplicações BCI, tal técnica é usada em eletroencefalograma (EEG) para detectar o lado, ou hemisfério, em que o sujeito está focalizando atenção. Este método leva em consideração a função de coerência e a distribuição topográfica das respostas entre os eletrodos de EEG. Neste estudo foram coletados sinais EEG de 14 homens adultos com idade entre 19 e 28 anos com aplicação de estímulos sonoros, tons em amplitude modulada (AM) com frequência de modulação e portadora 32/500 Hz na orelha esquerda e 38/2000 Hz na orelha direita. A coerência espacial foi usada em um sistema BCI on-line com ASSR modulada pela atenção seletiva auditiva. Neste trabalho, foi abordado a taxa de transferência de informação (ITR) e os efeitos de sobreposição de janelas nas estimativas da coerência com objetivo de reduzir a duração do ensaio e aumentar a ITR. Conclui-se que a coerência espacial pode útil para detecção do foco de atenção, aplicado a BCI. As taxas de sensibilidade e ITR máximas são de 82% e 1,89 bits/min. Neste caso a melhor sensibilidade e especificidade foram obtidas com 50% de sobreposição entre as janelas nas estimativas da coerência.



The "Cocktail Party Effect" describes the skill of focusing attention to a determined person who is speaking in an environment in which a mixture of conversations and background noises are observed.1 This mental capacity of resisting distracting stimuli and focusing on relevant information of a determined stimulus (or message) is called Auditory Selective Attention (ASA). ASA has been investigated in order to elucidate the mechanism underlying some features of hearing information control, such as the ability of selecting the relevant stimuli to which the subject must respond appropriately.2 By applying auditory steady-state responses (ASSRs) - i.e. responses evoked by amplitude-modulated tones (AM tones) and registered by the electroencephalogram (EEG)3 - in ASA studies, Wolpaw et al.4 found an increase in the evoked responses during selective attention. However, the effects of attention on ASSR are still a matter of debate. Linden et al.5 observed no significant changes in ASSR during ASA. In a more recent work with magnetoencephalographic signals, Ross et al.6 observed an increase in the 40 Hz ASSR for the subjects focusing on a visual stimulus compared to the rest condition. In addition, topographical analysis of evoked hearing responses could provide information of cerebral structures involved in the neurophysiological attention process.2

The development of brain computer interfaces (BCIs) based on ASA allows patients who cannot voluntarily control eye movement to interact with the interface, since such systems are independent of vision (vision Free).7 Furthermore, hearing BCIs use a cognitive task inherent to all human beings, without the need for intensive training for performing the attention task.8 Some researchers have sought to develop BCIs with auditory stimulus as an alternative to visual stimulus.8-13 In the study by Hill et al.9 sequences of auditory stimulus were generated in two sound sources (left and right), while the subjects were instructed to focus on one of these, making thus a binary choice. This study showed that the EEG signals from an untrained patient could be classified with good accuracy by using Support Vector Machines. Kanoh et al,10 in a similar paradigm, evaluated the peak of P300 (an event related potential component elicited in the process of decision making) as a feature to classify the selective attention of a subject, reaching a 95%-success rate. Another group of researchers tried to modify the P300-speller paradigm in an auditory version.11 In this study, differently from the studies based on visual stimulation with a matrix display of characters, different auditory stimuli, each one associated with a distinct task, have been used and tasks were performed based on the stimulus the volunteer was focusing attention to. Spatial hearing has also been studied as a new paradigm of auditory BCI by Schreuder at al,12 who used eight speakers spatially distributed around a volunteer; the sound source on which the individual focused was then detected. Lopez et al.8 investigated whether the ASSR would be modulated by selective attention and discussed the possibility of using these responses as a new type of BCI. In this study, which included 8 volunteers, distinct amplitude modulated (AM) tones were applied to each ear, with modulation frequencies around 40 Hz, applied simultaneously. The participants were instructed to focus attention only on one of the stimuli (left or right ear) or to ignore both, according to the instructions that appeared on a monitor. In six of the eight volunteers, spectral power density of the alpha rhythm was inversely proportional to the modulation frequency for the left ear, showing that selective attention could modulate the ASSR. They also showed, using Self Organizing Maps, that the conditions of with- and without-attention could be clearly classified into two groups, demonstrating the possibility of using the ASSR as a new paradigm for BCI. In a more recent study, Kim et al,7 evaluated the effect of attention in ASSR and observed an energy increase in the stimulation frequency that was associated with the stimulus on which the subject was focusing. In this work the first online auditory BCI was also developed.

An alternative technique suitable for BCI applications is Spatial Coherence.14 Spatial coherence is an objective method to detect the side where a subject is focusing attention. This method takes into consideration the Coherence Function15 and the topographic distribution of responses between EEG electrodes. Thus, this paper describes a BCI system where ASA was assessed by ASSRs and detected by spatial coherence. The proposed methodology can be classified as vision-free type, since no visual or somatosensory feedback from the volunteer is required. Moreover, it requires no training from the subjects.



EEG data acquisition. EEG signals were collected from fourteen adult men aged between 19 and 28 years (22.4 ± 2.3 years) with no symptoms of neurological pathologies or hearing loss, previously verified through conventional audiometry. The experimental protocol was approved by the Ethics Committee of Universidade federal de Viçosa (Case number · 051/2010)

The signals were registered with a 36-channel biological signal amplifier (BrainNET, BNT-36, EMSA, Brazil) with 0.1 Hz - 100 Hz band-pass filter. Sampling frequencies frequency of 600 Hz and 60 Hz notch filter were used. The EEG signals were recorded through non-invasive electrodes placed on the scalp, according to the international 10-20 system, with reference to electrode Oz in order to obtain higher signal-to-noise ratio for ASSR.16 Silver/silver chloride (Ag/AgCl) electrodes with 10 mm diameter were used and impedance was always maintained inferior to 5 kΩ. Only the subset of channels T3, F3, P3, O1, T4, P4, O2, Fz and Pz was used in this study.

Auditory selective attention protocol. AM tones were used for stimulation, with 32 and 38 Hz modulation and 500 and 2000 Hz carrier frequencies, on the left and right ears, respectively. The modulation depth was 100%. In order to avoid spectral leakage, the modulation frequencies were corrected in such a way that each window with 1024 points contained a prime number of cycles of the stimulating signal.17 The stimuli were digitally produced in a personal computer simulating a continuous signal that had been sampled at 44100 Hz-sampling frequency (CD quality). The maximum amplitude was adjusted so that the intensity of each AM tone was 75 dB SPL (Sound Pressure Level). All stimulation experiments were conducted with the volunteer in the interior of an audiometric cabin, with acoustic isolation, in order to avoid interference of surrounding noises during the procedure. In this work each subject was tested only once.

The stimulation protocol was composed by the following three steps: first, ignoring both stimuli; second, focusing on the left stimulus only and; third, focusing on the right stimulus only. Each stimulation stage lasted 2 min with 30 sec. intervals between stimulations. Before each stage in which the individual had to pay attention to a determined stimulus, only the ear at the side where attention should be focused on was stimulated for ten seconds. This was performed in order to instruct the subject on the cognitive task. Figure 1 illustrates the stimulation protocol.


Figure 1 - Timeline to the auditory stimulus. Stimulation of the left ear (top) and right ear (bottom), with carrier frequencies of 500 Hz modulated at 32 Hz and 2000 Hz modulated at 38 Hz, respectively.


Coherence function. The coherence function estimate between two random, discrete-time signals, x[n] and y[n], can be estimated with the familiar approach of partitioning them into M non-overlapping segments as:15

where Xi(ƒ) and Yi(ƒ) are, respectively, the ith window Fourier Transform of x[n] and y[n] and "^" and "*" superscript mean, respectively, estimation and complex conjugate.

In this work, y[n] refers to the EEG signal and x[n] reflects the stimulation signal. In order to perform the calculations, we have simulated the stimulation signal with a sinusoid with the same frequency as the modulation frequency. Thus we perform two kinds of estimates of coherence: with or without overlapping windows. When the analysis involved overlapping windows, Equation 1 was used. In the non-overlapping estimation, the coherence function is equivalent to the well-known magnitudesquared coherence and the simpler equation provided in Dobie & Wilson18 was used instead.

Spatial Coherence. Spatial coherence is defined as a vectorial spectral measurement that takes into account both the coherence value in each electrode and its spatial location on the scalp. According to Felix et al,14 each vector is defined by a magnitude equal to coherence value at a given electrode and direction given by the strait line connecting the vertex (electrode Cz) and that electrode. Spatial coherence is then defined as the resultant vector of the summation involving all electrodes. Thus,

where N represents the number of channels used for the calculation of spatial coherence, "Ai" is the distance from each electrode to the vertex and "θi" is the angle of each electrode to the vertex. The amount of coherence λ is equal to and the subscripts "no-attention" and "attention" are the coherence function estimated before and during the selective attention protocol (refer to Fig. 1 to further details), respectively. Thus, spatial coherence is a resulting vector that will point to the region of the scalp of greater synchronism for the frequency ƒ0 in analysis.14

In order to obtain a binary classification of the focus of attention, i.e. to the left or to the right, an attention index based on the spatial coherence was used. The attention index is calculated by taking only the real part, i.e. the projection on the x axis. Thus, it only considers inter-hemispherical changes and was developed based on reports that attention causes a contralateral modulation in the ASSR.14 Hence, if the index results in a positive value ( pointing to the right), it indicates attention to the left stimulus (contralateral). Conversely, if the index is negative (pointing to the left), it indicates attention to the right stimulus.

Performance measurements

Information Transfer Rate (ITR). ITR measures the amount of information transmitted/received by the interface per unit time and it is considered as a standard measure for communication systems. According to Obermaier et al,19 this rate depends on the accuracy and speed of the interface. For a BCI with K commands (in in this study, K=2 because the commands are focusing either on left or right ear stimulation) and with s commands being executed per minute; where each command is decoded correctly with hit rate P, the rate of transfer of information, in bits/minute is given as:

This equation shows that, for a given hit rate P, the ITR increases with increasing the number K of commands. On the other hand, for a given number of commands (K), the higher the number of hit rates (P) the higher the ITR of the system will be. It can be seen from Equation 3 that the maximum value of the ITR is . In practice, a large K implies a hit rate reduction of the system. Therefore, one should take into account the compromise between the number of commands and the hit rate to obtain the best suitable configuration BCI.

Area under the Receiver Operating Characteristic (ROC) curve. Another metric used to compare the results of the detectors is the Area under the ROC curve (AUC). With the ROC curve it is possible to analyze the performance of a particular sensor in terms of its sensitivity and specificity. However, in order to compare the performance of different detection methods it is more appropriate to use the AUC.20 In the present work the AUC was calculated for the detectors with varying the number of windows used from 2 to 20. The AUC was estimated by means of numerical integration (trapezoidal rule).



All possible electrode combinations were evaluated by exhaustive search throughout the subjects. The combination that led to the best results was found to be the channels T3, F3, P3, O1, T4, P4, O2, Fz and Pz.

In order to evaluate the application of the method developed as a classifier for BCI the ITR was estimated according to Equation 3 and the results are shown in Figure 2 together with hit rates. The results show a maximum ITR of 1.89 bits/minute, hit rate of 82% using 10.21 sec. of signals.


Figure 2 - Hit rate and ITR versus time to classify the state of attention.


In addition, we evaluated the use of overlapping windows in the estimation of coherence function for the attention index calculations. The values of hit rate and the ITR for the detector with 50% overlap (best result) are shown in Figure 3. The results indicate maximum value of 1.63 bits/minute in signals with duration of 11.92 sec. with hit rate of 82%.


Figure 3 - Hit rate and ITR versus time to classify the state of attention. Results obtained with overlapping coherence estimated 50%.


The average AUCs for all subjects are shown in Figs. 4 and 5 using non-overlap and overlapping windows, respectively. The level of overlapping which lead to the best results was also 50% and was then used in this study. In both cases, the AUC was always greater than 0.60 (0.50 in AUC is a random detector) for all numbers of windows. The mean AUC for the overlapping classifier was 0.75; while for the classifier without overlapping the average was 0.72. The maximum AUC was also greater for the detector with overlapping, with maximum area of 0,857 (with 13 windows with 11.92 s of duration) versus 0.821 (with 7 windows or 11.92 s) in detector with no-overlap.


Figure 4 - Mean AUC of the classifier for all volunteers as a function of the number of windows. Non-overlapping windows.



Figure 5 - Mean AUC of the classifier for all volunteers as a function of the number of windows. Overlapping windows (50%).



First, it is important to state that the whole BCI system was implemented in an online fashion. Thus, the EEG data were analyzed and recorded at the same session. Second, Spatial coherence is a method that considers both the position of the electrodes and the coherence values. Hence, it is clearly affected by the set of electrodes used. Thus, in this study, all possible electrode combinations were evaluated by exhaustive search throughout the subjects. The combination that led to the best results was found to be the channels T3, F3, P3, O1, T4, P4, O2, Fz and Pz.

Although the ITR values are relatively lower when compared to other BCIs, such as the visual evoked potentials based ones, such values are consistent with other ones in the literature (e.g., Kim et al.13).

In Felix et al.14 the spatial coherence was developed and in the present work it was used in an online BCI system using ASSR modulated by auditory selective attention. In this work, we further study the ITR and the effects of overlapping windows in the calculations. The idea behind the overlapping is to decrease the duration of the test in order to augment the ITR.



Spatial Coherence successfully detected the focus of attention, and it seemed useful as a classifier of the attention condition for vision-free BCI. The obtained hit rates and ITR may be considered appropriate, with a maximum value of 82% and 1.89 bits/min (comparable with the similar method of Kim et al.7).

The results from Figures 2-3 lead to the conclusion that the system does not improve its information transfer (ITR) with overlapping windows, since the ITRs are quite similar. However, Figs 4-5 show that a better detector regarding sensivity versus specificity can be obtained by using 50% overlapping between consecutive data windows. Thus, taking into consideration the comparative data from Figures 2-5, one may conclude that 50% overlapping is a suitable choice for estimating the spatial coherence and consequently for this BCI system, since more accuracy can be obtained with nearly the same duration of exam.



Felix LB: responsible for planning the research, writing the article and co-supervising Ranaudo FS; d'Affonsêca Netto A: responsible for signal processing; Ranaudo FS: responsible for data collection, literature review and algorithm implementation; Miranda de Sá AMFL: responsible for reviewing and correcting the article and supervising Ranaudo FS and d'Affonsêca Netto A.



Authors declare no conflict of interest regarding this publication.



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