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Experimental Brain Implant Helps Paralyzed Man Turn Thoughts into Words

The New England Journal of Medicine recently published a report on a new experimental technology that was able to help a man who is unable to move or speak generate words and sentences on a computer using only his thoughts. This significant breakthrough was made possible by an implanted device that decodes signals in the brain that are used to control the vocal tract. According to the study, the man had a limited vocabulary of 50 words and could only communicate at a rate of about 15 words per minute, which is slower than most people’s natural speech.

According to neurosurgeon Edward Chang of the University of California, San Francisco, "This tells us that it's possible… to make this better over time." Chethan Pandarinath, an assistant professor of Biomedical Engineering at Emory University and Georgia Tech says the goal is to eventually create a device with the experimental technology that is “more natural, and hopefully effortless compared to current assistive devices.”

Current devices on the market for people with paralysis who have lost the ability to speak generally rely on eye or head movements to spell out words one letter at a time, while others allow the person to control a computer cursor with thoughts. Although Chang’s team had previously developed a system that recognizes rain signals associated with speech intentions, it was only practical for people who could still move and speak.

To figure out if similar success was possible in a subject who couldn’t move or speak, the team implanted sensors on the surface of the man's brain and studied patterns of electrical activity via computer. Although the process took months, the team was able to reliably generate words on a computer screen and also improve the accuracy and context of each word. Eventually, the subject could generate a word reliably every four seconds (15 words per minute).

Researchers compared the system to texting software that most smartphones utilize. According to Chang, “if one word is just not decoded correctly, this autocorrect function can correct it.” Although this study is just the tip of the iceberg, the device could potentially help thousands of people who've had a traumatic brain injury.

Scarlett Law Group is committed to representing survivors of catastrophic events who’ve suffered a traumatic brain injury. We proudly represent TBI victims on a contingency basis, so please call (415) 688-2176 to request a free consultation to discuss what we can do to recover all of the compensation you are entitled to under the law.

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