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Paralyzed Patient Communicates Through Mind-Reading Tech

 Imagine being able and eager to communicate but not capable of moving your lips to utter even one word? That’s the scary reality for patients suffering from anarthria. This condition is the most severe form of dysarthria, a motor speech disorder that occurs when a person cannot control the muscles used for speaking. Now imagine partially regaining the ability to communicate after years of silence, even if only through a screen.
In a recent experiment published in The New England Journal of Medicine, a group of neuroscientists from the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), trained a computer to pick up on the brainwaves of a paralyzed patient suffering from anarthria and turn those brainwaves into actual words, all in real-time.
Speech Tech for Paralyzed Patients brain scan
At first, this “mind-reading” tech may sound like the plot of some science-fiction novel to you, but we can assure you that it’s not. “This outcome really is a milestone toward restoring speech for people who are unable to communicate due to paralysis,” said David Moses, the lead author of the study.

A paralyzed patient was taught to communicate through thoughts

The experiment was conducted on a 36-year-old man who was paralyzed after a stroke damaged his brainstem at age 20. The participant is cognitively healthy and able to make out grunts, but the paralysis prevents him from articulating words, meaning that he is suffering from complete anarthria.

In his day-to-day life, the participant communicated by slightly moving his head and typing on a special device, but this device doesn’t allow him to communicate very fast - his typing speed is about 5 words per minute. With the new technology introduced to the participant, he was able to produce 15 words per minute (with an error rate of just 26%).

Exactly how does this new technology work?

The technological solution works by connecting the brain of the participant to a computer that interprets electric brain activity - brainwaves - into words. This was done by implanting a credit card-sized electrode (a medium that conducts electricity) on a specific area of the brain called the sensorimotor cortex.
Speech Tech for Paralyzed Patients brain structure

The sensorimotor cortex (highlighted in purple and green in the table above) is the part of the brain responsible for one’s ability to articulate words by moving the lips, tongue, and throat. Over the course of 48 training sessions, the participant was taught to think about saying 50 specific words presented to him on a screen. The computer picks up the brainwaves from the sensorimotor cortex and uses something the authors call “deep-learning algorithms” to recognize words.

To speed up the process of communication further, the computer also has a “natural-language model,” which deduces the next word based on previously-uttered words. All of this happens in real-time, which allows the participant to make immediate requests like “I need my glasses” and “I am thirsty.”

“While the intervention is quite invasive, requiring brain surgery to implant a recording strip on the surface of the brain, and the ‘thought-to-spoken’ conversion accuracy was modest, the paradigm is groundbreaking,” said Dr. Lee H. Schwamm of the American Stroke Association.

To give you more perspective on the significance of this technology, we must add that this is the first device of its kind to be used in a patient who is not able to speak. Previous devices were only tested in patients who could speak. It is also the first technology able to produce immediate results, which makes it more practical. The next step in this research could be investigating the technology’s potential in patients with aphasia, a more common language deficit that occurs after a head injury or stroke.

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