Decoding the Mind
Californian researchers announced they were able to successfully translate the brain waves of a man who was rendered unable to speak due to a severe stroke. Or, in other words, they were able to convert his thoughts into written sentences. According to neurosurgeon Dr .Edward Chang, the senior author of the study, these were the first known successful efforts “[demonstrating the] direct decoding of full words from the brain activity of someone who is paralyzed and cannot speak.” The results of the study have given hope to many who suffer from difficulty communicating.
The study, known as “BRAVO” (Brain Computer Interface Restoration of Arm and Voice), involved a test subject in his late 30s whose brainstem stroke paralyzed him 15 years prior, leaving him with limited mobility in his head, neck, and limbs. Before the study, he communicated by poking letters on a screen using a pointer attached to a baseball cap.
Dr. Chang and his research associates implanted electrodes into the speech control center–the cerebrum–of the aforementioned subject’s brain. They worked with the man to create a 50-word vocabulary bank with words like “water,” “family,” and “good,” which Chang and his team were able to pair with brain activity patterns through advanced computer algorithms. To test this approach, the researchers had the volunteer repeat sentences created from words in his vocabulary bank, and they would record the subsequent neural activity. He was then asked short questions such as “How are you today?” and “Would you like some water?” After hearing the questions, the man responded via computer screen: “I am very good” and “No, I am not thirsty.”
Brain Waves Translated
How was this incredible feat possible, you ask? The researchers translated using brain signals that were intended to control muscles of the vocal system for speaking, rather than the signals to move the arm or hand for typing. This approach, known as speech neuroprosthesis, taps into the fluid aspects of speech, which promises more rapid and natural communication for the speech impaired.
By successfully intercepting and translating brain signals associated with speech-related muscles, the team determined that their implanted electrode system could decode words from the subject’s neural activity at a rate of up to 18 words per minute with up to 93% accuracy. Similar to what is used in commercial speech recognition software, an “auto-correct” function is attributed to the success of the technology.
Chang and his team are currently working on increasing the vocabulary and rate of speech of their technology, as well as expanding the trial to include more test subjects with paralysis and communication deficiencies. With hard work and time, their efforts could contribute to the full restoration of speech for millions upon millions of people.
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