STANFORD, Calif. -- In a recent experiment, a woman suffering from A.L.S. was able to express her thoughts by typing on a screen, not with her fingers but with her brain waves. She was able to accomplish the feat with a technology being developed at Stanford along with several other research centers. It's known as BrainGate.
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Stanford neurosurgery professor Jaimie Henderson, M.D. says a surgically implanted sensor captures signals from the brain. A cable then feeds them to a sophisticated decoding system which is the product of decades of research.
"We're beginning to understand the language of the brain. We're beginning to understand what those patterns of neuro-activity look like and how they translate into movement," said Henderson.
Patients concentrate on moving the cursor by imagining they're using a computer mouse. The sensor is placed in the part of the brain that would normally control their hand movement.
"It's fascinating to watch people get control of that. They can actually do it fairly rapidly with the first few sessions they're already able to move the cursor. So the amount of training is very little," Henderson explained.
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By now, many people may be familiar with communication devices like the one used by famed scientist Stephen Hawking, who also suffers from ALS. But while those systems allow a patient to express themselves, they can't relay commands directly from the brain.
Some existing technologies use cameras to track eye motion allowing patients to essentially type with their eyes by blinking when they reach the letter they want. But Stanford researchers say streaming those same commands straight from the brain can be much faster, and eventually more practical.
"Our consortium is working towards making these systems fully implantable, wireless, able to be used 24 hours a day seven days a week without technician intervention," Henderson told ABC7 News.
Henderson cautions that there are still several years of work ahead before brain interface systems could be available. But he envisions a day when patients control typing, robotic limbs and speech devices, with the power of their own brain waves.
The BrainGate project is a collaboration between centers, including Stanford, Brown and Case Western Reserve Universities. This week researchers at case western used the system to help a disabled man move his paralyzed arm.
Written and produced by Tim Didion
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Woman with ALS types using her mind thanks to new technology