Many people with ALS experience trouble speaking. To help them stay connected, researchers are developing brain-powered systems to type out words, much like texting people using smart phones. The approach, known as brain-computer interfaces, aims to bypass damaged sections of the central nervous system to allow people with ALS to reach out to family and friends without caregivers’ assistance.
But although many of these investigational devices enable people with paralysis to communicate accurately, the technologies introduced to date are extremely slow for communication purposes. Most recently, a wireless device developed by UMC Utrecht’s Nick Ramsey’s team in the Netherlands enabled a person with ALS to communicate independently but at only 2 letters/minute (see November 2016 news; Vansteensel et al., 2016).
Now, a research team led by Stanford’s Jaimie Henderson and Krishna Shenoy introduce an intracortical brain computer interface (iBCI)-based strategy that enabled people with paralysis to communicate up to 8 words (39.2 characters)/minute, more than 4 times faster than existing neural interfaces (Bacher et al., 2015). This is compared to 12-18 words per minute, the average time it takes for able-bodied people to text on their cell phone without word completion assistance (Hoggan et al., 2008; MacKenzie et al., 2009). The technology according to Stanford’s Krishna Shenoy could be adapted to operate digital devices including computers, tablets and smart phones.
The strategy uses decoding algorithms previously developed by Shenoy’s team, to translate brain activity into ‘point and click’ control commands that work much like using a computer mouse (Gilja et al., 2012; Gilja et al., 2015; Kao et al., 2016). The approach, which involves the pre-implantation of electrode arrays in the hand-operating region of the motor cortex, uses a cable to deliver neuronal signals to a computer interface. The device is one of a growing number of neurotechnologies being developed in collaboration with a consortium of neuroscientists, neurosurgeons and bioengineers known as BrainGate that aims to restore independence to people with paralysis in part, by helping them stay connected.