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Transforming thoughts into words with an experimental brain implant

A step taken by new research gives hope to people who have lost their ability to speak.

On 14th July, The New England Journal of Medicine published many doctors’ findings on how they were able to turn a man’s thoughts into speech. The ability stems from an experimental implanted gadget that decrypts signals, which previously controlled his vocal tract, in the man’s brain. The computer screen then displays the words interpreted by the brain. 

The man, identified as BRAVO1, is in his 30s and suffered from a severe stroke 15 years ago, according to Dr. Eddie Chang of the University of California, San Francisco. His arms and legs got almost paralyzed, as well as the muscles of his vocal tract, after the stroke. The man communicates at a pace of nearly 15 words per minute, which is far slower than actual speech, and his vocabulary is typically restricted to around 50 words. To safeguard the man’s privacy, Dr. Chang’s team came up with a better name for him. He is the first patient in the BRAVO research (B[rain-Computer Interface] Restoration of Arm and Voice), hence the name BRAVO1. The man agreed to have a small rectangular array of electrodes, smaller than a credit card, surgically connected to the outer surface of his brain. He now interacts by tapping out individual letters on a screen with a cap-worn pointer.

People with paralysis who have lost their capacity to speak currently rely on devices that spell out words one letter at a time using eye or head movements. Some people utilize technology that allows them to control the cursor of a computer with their thoughts. Despite these restrictions, brain-computer interface technology—in which minuscule electrical signals from the brain are transformed into movements in the physical world such as speaking, typing, or moving a computer cursor—remains underdeveloped. Technology companies like Elon Musk’s Neuralink Corp., Facebook, and Kernel have shown interest in the last few years to commercialize brain-computer interface technology. But Facebook revealed that it is a partner of the new study, and in a blog post, it stated that it was looking forward to the invention of a painless, wearable device that would allow individuals to type by thinking. 

This breakthrough is a step towards technology that could one day allow individuals to communicate by thinking. It also provides hope for thousands of people who lose their ability to speak each year due to illness or injury.

Reported by: Imaaz Nadeem

Written by: Mishaal Muzaffar

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