News Stories

Not Science Fiction

It just sounds that way - An amazing reality that used to be thought of as science fiction is here today: Paralyzed people are learning how to access the internet using only their brains (NOTE: Subscribers can still listen to this show). The next step is typing and sending an email.

Engineering student John LaRocco wants to perfect this system so that it will no longer be necessary to insert an implant inside the brain. He is working on ways that people can use their minds to power a computer and other technology to complete a variety of actions, wearing a Lycra-like cap that is fastened securely under his chin with electrodes poking out of it.

He's making progress: On a recent day, he used his thoughts to move a ball into a box on the computer screen and to spell out a name. He wasn't flawless, he had to mentally power the computer to fix a mistake here and there, but after a little practice, he could propel the ball into the box and get the name just right without laying a finger on the keyboard. His thoughts are encoded in EEG signals that are transferred via electrodes to the EEG equipment to the computer.

In another study, neuroscientists have demonstrated how brain waves can be used to type the alphabet and numbers on a computer screen. By merely focusing on the "q" in a group of letters, for example, that "q" appears on the monitor.

Neurologist Jerry Shih says, "Over 2 million people in the United States may benefit from assistive devices controlled by a brain-computer interface. This study constitutes a baby step on the road toward that future, but it represents tangible progress in using brain waves to do certain tasks."

The patients in this study were epileptics, who already had electrodes planted inside their skulls, directly on the surface of the brain, in order to find the area where their seizures originated. These same electrodes were used to enable them to send email messages.

The patients were asked to look at a computer screen which contained a matrix with a single alphanumeric character inside each square. Every time the square with a certain letter flashed, and the patient focused on it, the computer recorded the brain's response to the flashing letter. The patients were then asked to focus on specific letters, and the computer software recorded the information. When the patient then focused on a letter or number, it appeared on the screen.

Shih says, "We were able to consistently predict the desired letters for our patients at or near 100% accuracy."

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Art credit: Dreamstime.com

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