Scientists have created a brain-controlled keyboard for paralyzed patients, improving on existing technology to help locked-in people live fuller lives.
The as-yet unnamed system uses MRI scans to analyze blood movement inside the brain as patients silently do math problems, recite poems or imagine images. These calculations, recitations and pictures are tied to different letters of the alphabet, which people can select by taking various lengths of time to complete a mental task.
“This is not mind-reading. It is under the person’s control, so it is more like a typewriter for the brain,” explained neuroscientist Bettina Sorger of the Universiteit Maastricht in the Netherlands.
During trials, the software managed to guess participants’ intentions over eighty percent of the time despite inevitable spelling errors. For example, the question “Where did you spend your most recent vacation?” produced the answer “Indcnerca,” which researchers interpreted as “Indonesia.”
Patients currently take several minutes to answer questions with the MRI-based typewriter, but Sorger says this is the least of locked-in people’s concerns.
“For affected patients, time is not the most pressing matter, compared to just being able to communicate,” she said.
Further, MRI scanners are expensive and stationary, making the brain-powered typewriter impossible for portable use. Sorger’s creation has its issues but is moving toward helping people with paralysis, Lou Gehrig’s disease and other such disorders lead more productive lives.
The MRI-based typewriter is one of many communication innovations being developed and builds off other communicative devices like the iBrain, which also analyzes brainwaves to determine patients’ intentions.
The iBrain’s algorithm slowly deciphers repeated thought patterns and translates them into computer commands, as physicist and ALS patient Stephen Hawking demonstrated during a trial run. Brainwave-reading technology like this may also allow disabled populations to control video games with their minds.
The BrainWave headset, for example, presses against users’ foreheads and earlobes to help them play digital games using electrical signals through their scalps. Reviewers report the technology is difficult to use but say they experience glimpses of full control, suggesting eventual improvements to BrainWave may revolutionize both gaming and communication.
The Brainput innovation may also change the face of communication by offloading physical tasks to computers. The headset recognizes when drivers are multi-tasking and automatically eases their load by taking control of the radio or air-conditioning, for example. Brainput is too distracting for use in vehicles, but its technology could eventually change paralyzed patients’ lives as well by recognizing when they need help lifting or moving themselves.
While still imperfect, brainwave-reading devices are moving to improve the lives of those unable to communicate on their own. As the idea of computing technology as a conduit between mind and body continues to evolve, such inventions may become useful for those with autism and psychiatric disorders as well.
Patients and doctors alike stand to benefit from these advances, which are increasingly providing a window, and new perspectives, into the human mind like no other innovation before.