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Paralyzed Man Communicates Through Brain Waves

Device translates what he's thinking to words on the screen
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Jul 15, 2021 8:18 AM CDT

(Newser) – In a medical first, researchers harnessed the brain waves of a paralyzed 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, reported Wednesday, marks an important step toward one day restoring more natural communication for people who can’t talk because of injury or illness, per the AP. “It’s exciting to think we’re at the very beginning of a new chapter, a new field," said Dr. Edward Chang, a neurosurgeon at the University of California, San Francisco, who led the work. Chang’s team developed a “speech neuroprosthetic”—a device that decodes brain waves that normally control the vocal tract. Volunteering to test the device was a man in his late 30s who 15 years ago suffered a brain-stem stroke.

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The researchers implanted electrodes on the surface of the man’s brain, over the area that controls speech. A computer analyzed 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 enabled the man to answer “I am very good” or “No I am not thirsty," per the study in the New England Journal of Medicine. It takes about three to four seconds for the word to appear on the screen after the man tries to say it, says lead author David Moses, an engineer in Chang’s lab. In an accompanying editorial, Harvard neurologists Leigh Hochberg and Sydney Cash called the work a “pioneering demonstration.”

(Read more discoveries stories.)

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