Medical breakthrough could allow Hawking and other mostly paralyzed people to “speak” easier
Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a degenerative neural disease, robbed brilliant physicist Stephen Hawking of his movement and speech. Today Professor Hawking, 70, communicates via a custom speech generation device, which translates his cheek twitches into speech. It takes hours for this vestige of the physicist’s neuromuscular response, carefully catalogued by infrared sensors, to generate a couple sentences in reply to a question.
I. Giving the Severely Paralyzed a Voice
But a San Diego, California-based startup named NeuroVigil, Inc. is working to give Professor Hawking easy access to something nature law denied him – unencumbered speech. The company has developed a device called iBrain.
The mere size of a matchbox, the head-mounted device shares some similarities with so-called “brain mice”, used by gamers. However, it provides far more precise scans of brain wave activity, thanks to its SPEARS algorithm.
It detects different kinds of gamma waves — like the kind generated when a paralyzed person tries to will their limbs to move. The sensor also picked up clear profiles of alpha waves — brain activity associated with wakeful relaxation — when Professor Hawking closed his eyes.
The device is already being considered as a potential tool in studying and combatting post-traumatic stress disorder (PSD), sleep apnea, autism, and a whole host of brain conditions. It’s even been used in a clinical test to study the effects of experimental drugs on the brain.
A first-generation iBrain device [Image Source: NeuroVigil]
But its most potent uses may lie in granting speech and mobility to the paralyzed. By associating willful thoughts with words — or possibly letters — a speech system could be developed that far outpaces the painstakingly slow dictation systems that fully paralyzed individuals like Professor Hawking use.
Alternatively, the system could be used to order movements from an exoskeleton, which would grant individuals like Professor Hawking mobility. Ironically, such a system is remarkably similar to one depicted in a 1997 parody article in The Onion.
In a Telegraph interview with Philip Low, NeuroVigil’s founder, chairman, and CEO, he describes the tests on Professor Hawking, stating, “We’d like to find a way to bypass his body, pretty much hack his brain.”
For now the tests on Professor Hawking have been just that — tests. But Mr. Low and others are working to “productize” the results, to make a basic speech demonstration.
II. From Tragedy to Triumph
For Mr. Low, that demonstration will mark the culmination of decades of devotion to his quest to unlock the brain’s secrets via wearable brain-wave monitors.
Stephen Hawking may be able to benefit from the novel device and has helped to test it.
[Image Source: Ted S. Warren / AP]
His father suffered tragically from a tragic brain-related side effect of medication. He recalls in an MSNBC interview, “I would have loved to see this 20 years ago, when my father suffered from a side effect of a commonly used sleep drug. He threatened someone with a weapon … a gun, actually. And it destroyed our family.”
His father was convicted of a criminal act, but later pardoned, given the circumstances. Still the incident stuck with Mr. Low.
He put $240,000 USD on his credit cards to fund NeuroVigil. It took him years of studying brain waves in bird brains to develop the first generation iBrain. But the sacrifices paid off. Now he’s courting some of the world’s top investors and brains and is set to debut his slimmest model yet. His iBrain 3 will launch next year, pushing the envelope even further.
He describes, “It will be about the size of a U.S. quarter. People will be able to check their brain activity much like you or I can check our blood pressure.
It’s very ironic that an algorithm I initially developed to analyze the brain patterns of birds has found its way to dealing with Stephen Hawking’s brain patterns, the U.S. military and autistic children.”