Communication system set to help people with motor neurone disease

Scientists invent iBrain to help Stephen Hawking communicate

American scientists have invented a communication device to enable Professor Stephen Hawking to write words with his brain.

The iBrain concept is being developed by Silicon Valley-based start-up Neurovigil, and records brain waves through EEG (electroencephalograph) readings. Computer software analyses the data and detects high frequency signals that had previously been thought lost because of the skull.

Professor Philip Low explains: "An analogy would be that as you walk away from a concert hall where there’s music from a range of instruments. As you go further away you will stop hearing high frequency elements like the violin and viola, but still hear the trombone and the cello. Well, the further you are away from the brain the more you lose the high frequency patterns. What we have done is found them and teased them back using the algorithm so they can be used."

Prof Low said that when Prof Hawking had thought about moving his limbs this had produced a signal, which could act as an ‘on-off switch’ and produce speech.

Currently Prof Hawking uses a speech system which interprets cheek muscle movements. But with motor neurone disease, nerves in his face have continued to deteriorate and he is currently only able to produce about one word a minute.

If Prof Low’s equipment could distinguish different types of thoughts, such as imagining moving a left hand and a right leg, Prof Hawking could use different combinations to create different types of virtual gestures, speeding up the rate he could select words at.

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