Earlier this week, researchers achieved a breakthrough in brain-computer interface (BCI) technology. As outlined in a statement by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) and published in a Nature journal article, scientists state that they have created a system to translate mental thoughts of handwriting into real-time text. The authors of the journal article explain: “we developed an intracortical BCI that decodes attempted handwriting movements from neural activity in the motor cortex and translates it to text in real time, using a recurrent neural network decoding approach.”
As if the creation of this ground-breaking technology itself wasn’t sufficient, the team actually crossed yet another frontier with this experiment. As mentioned in the HHMI statement, “By attempting handwriting, the study participant typed 90 characters per minute – more than double the previous record for typing with such a “brain-computer interface […]”
HHMI investigator and one of the co-authors of the study, Krishna Shenoy, is hopeful that this technology can, “with further development, let people with paralysis rapidly type without using their hands.”
If scientists can indeed innovate a way where thoughts and imagination alone could be used to effectively communicate, this would be a potentially unparalleled resource to millions of individuals facing paralysis or a wide variety of other neurological conditions which may cause loss of speech or movement.
The Howard Hughes Medical Institute published a video outlining the experiment:
This and similar applications for brain-interfaces have gained a significant amount of traction in recent years. One of the most famed examples is Elon Musk’s Neuralink. I wrote an article last month about Neuralink’s latest presentation, which entailed a monkey playing “MindPong” using thoughts alone, and how this could potentially revolutionize healthcare. One of Neuralink’s goals is to develop “a fully-implanted, wireless, high-channel count brain-machine interface (BMI) with the goal of enabling people with paralysis to directly use their neural activity to operate computers and mobile devices with speed and ease.”
Indeed, this area of medicine requires increased attention. The American Association of Neurological Surgeons (AANS) reports that “[a]ccording to the National Spinal Cord Injury Association, as many as 450,000 people in the United States are living with a spinal cord injury (SCI) […] Every year, an estimated 17,000 new SCIs occur in the U.S. Most of these are caused by trauma to the vertebral column, thereby affecting the spinal cord’s ability to send and receive messages from the brain to the body’s systems that control sensory, motor and autonomic function below the level of injury.”
Furthemore, the AANS explains that “A complete SCI produces total loss of all motor and sensory function below the level of injury. Nearly 50% of all SCIs are complete.”
These injuries, which may often cause grave functional consequences, are in addition to the plethora of other neurological conditions which can potentially cause significant movement and sensory difficulties.
Take for example amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as “ALS.” The national ALS Association explains: “Symptoms can begin in the muscles that control speech and swallowing or in the hands, arms, legs or feet. Not all people with ALS experience the same symptoms or the same sequences or patterns of progression. However, progressive muscle weakness and paralysis are universally experienced […] Other early symptoms vary but can include tripping, dropping things, abnormal fatigue of the arms and/or legs, slurred speech, muscle cramps and twitches, and/or uncontrollable periods of laughing or crying. When the breathing muscles become affected, ultimately, people with the disease will need permanent ventilatory support to assist with breathing.”
Indeed, brain-computer/machine interface technology is potentially a significant boon for patients affected by neurological conditions. For many, it may become a source of improved mobility, communication, or expression. Although much work still remains to be done in this industry, if innovators are indeed able to create this technology in a scalable manner that prioritizes patient safety, it may potentially provide much-needed respite for millions of people.