Friday, July 6, 2012

Spelling computer extracts letters from your brain

In order to be able to speak, you need your vocal chords and muscles in your mouth. While you generally do not think about it, speaking involves the effort of many muscles, that are more or less autonomously guided by your brain. When the brain loses its ability to control muscles, you can lose the ability to speak. The most famous example is that of Stephen Hawking, who suffers from a disease that shuts down all of his muscles. Scientists from the University in Maastricht have developed a brain scanner that can be used as a spelling computer. It allows people to speak merely by using thoughts.

According to the scientists, their spelling computer works with fMRI, which analyses brain activity. While it is generally used to reveal which parts of the brain are active, it cannot extract thoughts, meaning the scientists had to come up with a way to translate brain activity into letters. For every letter, there is an associated mental activity that the 'speaker' needs to perform in his mind. This forms a pattern of brain activity that can be read by the fMRI scanner, and consequently 'decoded' into the corresponding letter.

There are other attempts from scientific groups that aim at creating a machine that allows people without muscle function to communicate. According to the Dutch scientists, their spelling computer does not need a lot of calibration. All patients have to do is perform the necessary mental activities and the scanner will be able to read it. That means there is no need for extensive training, which is beneficial for the patient.

Scientists are ever-increasing their knowledge of the brain, allowing us to read its output and use that to control computers. Previous research has shown that it enables us to control robot limbs, or even finger movement, but now speaking with your mind also seems to be a possibility. On the downside, having to do a mental activity for each letter makes it rather slow. Nevertheless, being able to 'speak' at all is huge plus for some patients, for example those with the locked-in syndrome. Such patients have no way of communicating with the outside world, and appear to be in a coma, while their brains are functioning normally, aside from their inability to move muscles. This awful condition could be ameliorated by machines as those developed at the University of Maastricht.

No comments:

Post a Comment