OBJECTIVE: Brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) implemented with real-time functional magnetic resonance imaging (rt-fMRI) use fMRI time-courses from predefined regions of interest (ROIs). To reach best performances, localizer experiments and on-site expert supervision are required for ROI definition. To automate this step, we developed two unsupervised computational techniques based on the general linear model (GLM) and independent component analysis (ICA) of rt-fMRI data, and compared their performances on a communication BCI. Approach. 3 T fMRI data of six volunteers were re-analyzed in simulated real-time. During a localizer run, participants performed three mental tasks following visual cues. During two communication runs, a letter-spelling display guided the subjects to freely encode letters by performing one of the mental tasks with a specific timing. GLM- and ICA-based procedures were used to decode each letter, respectively using compact ROIs and whole-brain distributed spatio-temporal patterns of fMRI activity, automatically defined from subject-specific or group-level maps.
MAIN RESULTS: Letter-decoding performances were comparable to supervised methods. In combination with a similarity-based criterion, GLM- and ICA-based approaches successfully decoded more than 80% (average) of the letters. Subject-specific maps yielded optimal performances. Significance. Automated solutions for ROI selection may help accelerating the translation of rt-fMRI BCIs from research to clinical applications.