Local Researchers Develop Brain Implant for Those Unable to Move, Speak

NBCUniversal Media, LLC

A mind-bending breakthrough for severe stroke victims has come to light thanks to a study done at UCSF.

Neuroprosthesis is giving those who have lost the ability to move and speak, a new way to talk using brain activity. 

“The ultimate goal is to help people who do not have a list of options when it comes to communicating,” said UCSF project author, Dr. David Moses. 

The project started with a brain stem stroke survivor who lost the ability to speak 15 years ago and could only communicate using a pointer attached to his head to point to letters. 

That method helped researchers create a 50-word vocabulary, then an implanted electrode device recorded his brain activity as he tried to speak specific words. Computer algorithms then translated that brain activity and matched it to the vocabulary list, much like a phone's “predictive text” function. 

And the results were sentences created using only brain signals and projected onto a screen. 

“The person is able to say words and sentences and words and sentences are able to be decoded from that brain activity,” said Moses. 

Right now researchers have limited the vocabulary to 50 words as a proof of concept.

“One of the immediate next steps is to say ‘how do we get more words into this vocabulary?’ So that’s still ongoing research,” said Moses.

But the team says the ultimate goal is turning brain activity into actual sounds. 

“‘Speech is kind of the ultimate goal, that’s what we’re really striving for,” said Moses.

The cutting edge research has also led to some misunderstanding. The team gets annoyed when ‘neuroprosthesis’ is described as “mind reading.”

“We think speech is the most natural and effortless and efficient way to communicate,” said Moses. “So being able to restore speech would be really profound, we think.”

Like any breakthrough, the test usually starts with a single subject. Another big step will be to validate the findings with more testing participants to find out if this can work for everyone who needs it.

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