The new brain-computer interface enables HB to select letters on a computer screen using her mind alone, spelling out words at a rate of one letter every 56 seconds, to share her thoughts. Credit: Brain Center Rudolf Magnus, University Medical Center Utrecht 

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November 2016

Experts call the technology a “significant achievement,” but critics say the risks may not be justified

SAN DIEGO—A wireless device that decodes brain waves has enabled a woman paralyzed by locked-in syndrome to communicate from the comfort of her home, researchers announced this week at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience.

The 59-year-old patient, who prefers to remain anonymous but goes by the initials HB, is “trapped” inside her own body, with full mental acuity but completely paralyzed by a disease that struck in 2008 and attacked the neurons that make her muscles move. Unable to breathe on her own, a tube in her neck pumps air into her lungs and she requires round-the-clock assistance from caretakers. Thanks to the latest advance in brain–computer interfaces, however, HB has at least regained some ability to communicate.

The new wireless device enables her to select letters on a computer screen using her mind alone, spelling out words at a rate of one letter every 56 seconds, to share her thoughts. “This is a significant achievement. Other attempts on such an advanced case have failed,” says neuroscientist Andrew Schwartz of the University of Pittsburgh, who was not involved in the study, published in The New England Journal of Medicine.

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