New Mind-Reading Device Lets Paralyzed People Type_Featured_, Science, Technology Monday, July 2nd, 2012
(Smithsonian.com) Imagine that a debilitating illness, stroke or accident has left you entirely paralyzed. You’re fully conscious but unable to move or even communicate with those around you. People in this condition—known as Locked-in Syndrome—suffer greatly, locked in their own minds, appearing superficially to be in a persistent vegetative state despite a full inner life.
A new device, described in a paper published yesterday in the journal Current Biology, may offer hope to those locked-in: a new use of fMRI technology to read minds. The experimental setup allows individuals to “type” 27 symbols (26 letters and a space) without saying a word or moving a muscle, but rather by simply engaging in different thought patterns. The system could someday provide a practical means of daily communication for those who are unable to move.
According to Scientific American, the lead author of the study, Bettina Sorger of Maastricht University in the Netherlands, first started thinking about communicating with paralyzed patients after an experience she had about 10 years ago while working as a nurse. A patient who was recovering from anesthesia in the intensive care unit and seemed incapable of movement or speech suddenly tried to choke her. Then, a week later, he ran into Sorger while fully conscious and promptly apologized. She was stunned to realize that although he had little control over his movements while partially anesthetized, he was fully conscious and could even remember his actions a week later. Perhaps there could be some way to enable such patients in such a situation to communicate via mental activity alone, she thought.
Now Sorger is a researcher in neurocognition, and she and her colleagues have created a proof-of-concept device that could someday be used for those either temporarily or permanently paralyzed to achieve this goal. In the study, six healthy adults learned how to answer questions by mentally “typing” individual letters on a computer screen.