More threads by David Baxter PhD

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
Computers obey brain signals from paralysed people
Sun Apr 3, 2005

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) - To somebody peeking into this little room, I'm just a middle-aged guy wearing a polka-dotted blue shower cap with a bundle of wires sticking out the top, relaxing in a recliner while staring at a computer screen.

But in my imagination, I'm sitting bolt upright on a piano bench playing Chopin's Military Polonaise.

Why? Because there's a little red box motoring across that screen, and I'm hoping my fantasy will change my brain waves just enough to make it rise and hit a target.

Some people have learned to hit such targets better than 90 per cent of the time. During this, my first of 12 training sessions, I succeed 58 per cent of the time - not much better than the 50 per cent I could get by chance alone.

Bottom line: Over the past half-hour, I've displayed just a bit more mental prowess than you'd expect from a bowl of cereal.

This isn't some far-out video game. I'm visiting one of many labs that are pursuing a complex but straightforward goal: to use electrical signals from the brain as instructions to computers and other machines, allowing paralysed people to communicate, move around and control their environment literally without moving a muscle.

Volunteers working elsewhere on such projects have done far more impressive things with their brain signals lately than I have:
  • A quadriplegic man in Massachusetts has shown he can change TV channels, turn room lights on and off, open and close a robotic hand and sort through messages in a mock e-mail program.
  • Seven paralysed patients near Stuttgart, Germany, have been surfing the Internet and writing letters to friends from their homes.
  • At a lab in Switzerland, two healthy people learned to steer a two-wheeled robot - sort of like a tiny wheelchair - through a dollhouse-sized floor plan.
  • And at labs in several universities, monkeys operate mechanical arms with just their brains. [/list:u] Some researchers talk about taking the technology much farther someday: using brain signals to reanimate paralysed limbs, for example, or to control "wearable robots," mechanical devices worn over arms or legs to restore movement. And while today's brain-driven typing programs produce only a few characters per minute, future technology might use brain signals to operate a speech synthesizer.
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