Device Taps Brain Waves To Help Paralysed Man Communicate
In a medical first, researchers harnessed the brain waves of a paralysed man unable to speak -- and turned what he intended to say into sentences on a computer screen. It will take years of additional research but the study, marks an important step toward one day restoring more natural communication for people who can't talk because of injury or illness.

Today, people who can't speak or write because of paralysis have very limited ways of communicating. For example, the man in the experiment, who was not identified to protect his privacy, uses a pointer attached to a baseball cap that lets him move his head to touch words or letters on a screen. Other devices can pick up patients' eye movements. But it's a frustratingly slow and limited substitution for speech.

The team built on that work to develop a “speech neuroprosthetic” -- decoding brain waves that normally control the vocal tract, the tiny muscle movements of the lips, jaw, tongue and larynx that form each consonant and vowel.

Volunteering to test the device was a man in his late 30s who 15 years ago suffered a brain-stem stroke that caused widespread paralysis and robbed him of speech. The researchers implanted electrodes on the surface of the man's brain, over the area that controls speech. A computer analysed the patterns when he attempted to say common words such as “water” or “good,” eventually becoming able to differentiate between 50 words that could generate more than 1,000 sentences.

Prompted with such questions as “How are you today?” or “Are you thirsty” the device eventually enabled the man to answer “I am very good” or “No I am not thirsty” -- not voicing the words but translating them into text, the team reported. It takes about three to four seconds for the word to appear on the screen after the man tries to say it, said lead author. That's not nearly as fast as speaking but quicker than tapping out a response.

They suggested improvements but said if the technology pans out it eventually could help people with injuries, strokes or illnesses like Lou Gehrig's disease whose “brains prepare messages for delivery but those messages are trapped.”

Source:
https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMoa2027540
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