Mobile Equine EEG

If you could just get inside your horse’s head sometimes, right?

Thanks to novel technology developed by French researchers, we could very well be heading that direction. A new, wearable device allows scientists to take electroencephalogram (EEG) measurements from the brain of active, moving horses in real time. The system is opening a gateway into the way horses think and react, the research team said.

“We’re already using the system to detect how, when, and where a horse is directing its mental attention, and we’re preparing to apply it toward welfare research and the detection of emotions, as well,” said Hugo Cousillas, PhD, of the University of Rennes, who studied in collaboration with Martine Hausberger, PhD, also of the University of Rennes.

“Over the medium and long terms, we’re planning developments with veterinarians for medical applications as well, like clinical evaluations following a head trauma, or detection of a cerebrovascular accident, or assistance during surgery, etc.,” he said.

As they perfect the system, even riding centers and owners could benefit from simplified EEG readings of their horses, to get a better idea of how they react to certain situations or environments, Cousillas said.

In their study, Cousillas and his fellow researchers combined EEG and mobile technology to create a novel device that horses can wear on their heads. The “cap” is comfortable for the horses to wear and doesn’t restrict movement. The electrodes are designed to fall into the correct place on the head when a scientist places the cap on the horse’s head.

“EEG readings are sometimes used in clinical settings already, but we find them essentially in conditions where the horse is already immobilized, so a wired system works fine,” he said. “But if we have to immobilize the horse on purpose just to get an EEG reading, then we’re automatically interfering with any results we hope to obtain. And that causes significant limitations for field settings, obviously. But our group is known for its work in ethology in a field setting, so having a noninvasive mobile device that measures brain activity in a free horse became a real need for our research.”

Their novel device places five electrodes on the horse’s forehead over the parietal and frontal bones. Made with large rubber bands, it permits stable electrode contact with the skin and is adjustable for different head sizes, said the researchers.

Bypassing Bluetooth technology for this device, the researchers used an EEG amplifier to emit radio waves from the cap to an FM radio wave receiver. Wireless real-time data streamed directly into a computer connected to the FM receiver for analysis.

The research team tested the device on five riding horses from the French national equitation school in Saumur. They recorded EEG readings on the horses for 15 minutes each once a day for two days. In this primary experiment, the horses stood standing quietly during this time.

The scientists compared their EEG data with behavioral observations from the video recordings of the EEG recording sessions. They also compared the data to those obtained from previous EEG recordings of other horses using standard EEG equipment.

They found that their mobile system provided data consistent with data obtained for horses using a fixed system, Cousillas said. He said they also noted remarkable correlations between the horses’ behaviors and their EEG readings, indicating the system was reliable.

“We’re working with prototypes right now that we’re constantly improving, making them easier and easier to use,” he said. “We hope that in the future we can have a commercial version available for home use, as well.”

While the commercial version won’t be available any time soon, Cousillas said the aim is to keep the price as affordable as possible to maximize the number of horses and owners that can benefit from the technology.

The study, “An Ambulatory Electroencephalography System for Freely Moving Horses: An Innovating Approach,” was published in Frontiers in Veterinary Science.