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Open Access Open Badges Research

Single-trial classification of motor imagery differing in task complexity: a functional near-infrared spectroscopy study

Lisa Holper12* and Martin Wolf1

Author Affiliations

1 Biomedical Optics Research Laboratory (BORL), Division of Neonatology, Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, University Hospital Zurich, Frauenklinikstrasse 10, 8091 Zurich, Switzerland

2 Institute of Neuroinformatics (INI), University of Zurich and ETH Zurich, Winterthurerstrasse 190, 8057 Zurich, Switzerland

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Journal of NeuroEngineering and Rehabilitation 2011, 8:34  doi:10.1186/1743-0003-8-34

Published: 18 June 2011



For brain computer interfaces (BCIs), which may be valuable in neurorehabilitation, brain signals derived from mental activation can be monitored by non-invasive methods, such as functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS). Single-trial classification is important for this purpose and this was the aim of the presented study. In particular, we aimed to investigate a combined approach: 1) offline single-trial classification of brain signals derived from a novel wireless fNIRS instrument; 2) to use motor imagery (MI) as mental task thereby discriminating between MI signals in response to different tasks complexities, i.e. simple and complex MI tasks.


12 subjects were asked to imagine either a simple finger-tapping task using their right thumb or a complex sequential finger-tapping task using all fingers of their right hand. fNIRS was recorded over secondary motor areas of the contralateral hemisphere. Using Fisher's linear discriminant analysis (FLDA) and cross validation, we selected for each subject a best-performing feature combination consisting of 1) one out of three channel, 2) an analysis time interval ranging from 5-15 s after stimulation onset and 3) up to four Δ[O2Hb] signal features (Δ[O2Hb] mean signal amplitudes, variance, skewness and kurtosis).


The results of our single-trial classification showed that using the simple combination set of channels, time intervals and up to four Δ[O2Hb] signal features comprising Δ[O2Hb] mean signal amplitudes, variance, skewness and kurtosis, it was possible to discriminate single-trials of MI tasks differing in complexity, i.e. simple versus complex tasks (inter-task paired t-test p ≤ 0.001), over secondary motor areas with an average classification accuracy of 81%.


Although the classification accuracies look promising they are nevertheless subject of considerable subject-to-subject variability. In the discussion we address each of these aspects, their limitations for future approaches in single-trial classification and their relevance for neurorehabilitation.

wireless functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS); motor imagery; motor execution; single-trial classification; linear discriminant analysis; brain computer interface (BCI)