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Technology for typing with brain signals could allow paralyzed people to communicate

The typing in the video below is driven directly by brain signals in a monkey (yes, monkeys typing Shakespeare!). It's one of a series of studies testing technology that could allow people with movement disabilities to communicate.

Engineer Krishna Shenoy, PhD, and graduate student (and then postdoctoral fellow) Paul Nuyujukian, MD, PhD, had tested previous iterations of this technology in people, but the typing was slow and inaccurate. They've updated the algorithms for how they translate the brain signals into typing, which they tested in a series of studies in which animals transcribed passages from either the New York Times or (in this case) Hamlet. They are testing this faster, more accurate technology in people now.

As I described in a press release on the work, which was published today in the Proceedings of IEEE:

The technology developed by the Stanford team involves a multi-electrode array implanted in the brain to directly read signals from a region that ordinarily directs hand and arm movements used to move a computer mouse.

It’s the algorithms for translating those signals and making letter selections that the team members have been improving. They had tested individual components of the updated technology in prior monkey studies but had never demonstrated the combined improvements in speed and accuracy.

'The interface we tested is exactly what a human would use,' Nuyujukian said. 'What we had never quantified before was the typing rate that could be achieved.' Using these high-performing algorithms developed by Nuyujukian and his colleagues, the animals could type more than three times faster than with earlier approaches.

The animals were able to reach typing speeds of up to 12 words per minute. The researchers say people would probably type at a slower rate because they would need to think about what to say rather than simply transcribing. Still, that’s a rate that could allow people who otherwise can't communicate to share thoughts and emotions with their loved ones.

Previously: Stanford researchers provide insights into how human neurons control muscle movementKrishna Shenoy discusses the future of neural prosthetics at TEDxStanford and How does the brain plan movement? Stanford grad students explain in a video
Video by Paul Nuyujukian; photo of Nuyujukian in thumbnail by L.A. Cicero

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