Everyone uses the internet or word processors to write documents nowadays. Although this might seem easy for many of us these gestures can be difficult for people who are paralysed. However this could all change in the years to come. In fact a team of researchers from the University of Stanford have developed an implant which allows paralysed patients to write with their thoughts. This new procedure is currently in the testing stage.
Communication: A fundamental aspect of everyday life
In the researcher’s study which was published in eLIFE, the cerebral implant creators note how communication is a fundamental element in everyone’s life. This communication can be carried out in different ways from:
- Texts written on word processors
- Internet searches.
Even if these actions sound simple for most people, they can be extremely difficult or impossible for people who are paralysed. Nevertheless for a few years now there has been a method which helps to alleviate some of these problems. This method is called the Brain Computer Interface (BCI).
The Brain Computer Interface
The BCI helps us to understand (through reading and listening) a person’s cerebral information so that they can be read by a computer. Today this system is commonly used in bionic hand prosthetic. A computer or an implant receives a brain signal, and then treats and carries out the information.
This system involves cerebral waves. They circulate the information in our brain and throughout our body. They are electrical and can therefore be understood by an computer which has a particular algorithm or programme.
Communicating isn’t simple
Until now, a brain-computer interface allows you to produce relatively simple actions:
- Basic movements with your hand
- Moving a cursor across a screen with your thoughts
However communication requires lots of information to be treated. Significant amounts of information could be understood by a computer with difficulty. This would make communication for a person who is paralysed laborious even though they are using a Brain Computer Interface.
Ability to write thanks to your thoughts
Researchers from Stanford University have managed to develop an quicker interface which uses two different types of algorithms. The patients who are participating in the study use their thoughts to move a cursor across a screen (the first algorithm), then they can select letters on a screen to write their messages. (the second algorithm). The interface is therefore linked to the paralysed patient’s cortex motor. These patients have been paralysed either following a illness like a stroke or an accident. The cortex motor is the part of the brain where messages are sent to our limbs which allow us to move. This part of their brain still functions despite the fact the patients are paralysed, and so it is this area of the brain which is linked to the machine.
Writing with your thoughts
In this study, patients have been implanted with an electrode which is used by the interface. Thanks to this “participants (of the study) were able to type at rates ranging from 12 up to 40 characters per minute, which translates in the best case by 6 to 8 words per minute,” confided Dr. Jaimie Henderson, one of the researchers in the video presentation of the study. In general we type 12 to 19 words per minute on a smart phone, so these results are promising.
Dr. Henderson reminds us that this research is only in the early stages. The device will ultimately have to be smaller and wireless, which will allow patients full independence.