itting stone still under a skull cap fitted with
a couple dozen electrodes, American scientist Peter Brunner stares
at a laptop computer. Without so much as moving a nostril hair, he
suddenly begins to compose a message — letter by letter — on a giant
“B-O-N-J-O-U-R” he writes with the power of his
mind, much to the amazement of the largely French audience of
scientists and curious onlookers gathered at the four-day European
Research and Innovation Exhibition in Paris, which opened Thursday.
Brunner and two colleagues from the
state-financed Wadsworth Center in Albany, New York were
demonstrating a “brain computer interface (BCI),” an astounding
technology which digitalizes brain signals emitted as electrical
impulses — picked up by the electrodes — to convey intent.
While no spoons were bent, this was definitely
mind over matter.
Without recourse to nerves or muscles, BCI “can
provide communication and control to people who are totally
paralyzed” and unable to unable to speak or move, explains
researcher Theresa Sellers, also from Wadsworth.
Brunner demonstrating the BCI
Dr. Sellers estimates there are some 100 million
potential users of BCI technology worldwide, including 16 million
sufferers of cerebral palsy, a degenerative brain disease, and at
least five million victims of spinal cord injury. Another 10 million
people have been totally paralyzed by brainstem strokes, she said.
Scientists have been experimenting with ways to
translate thought directly into action for nearly two decades, but
BCI has only recently begun to move out of the laboratory and into
the daily lives of those trapped inside bodies that no longer
respond to their will.
Brunner demonstrating the BCI
Possible applications extend beyond the written
word into physical movement — it is only a matter of time, Sellers
says, before the same technology is used to operate motorized wheel
chairs. “We can do already. But it is a complex problem, and for now
it would be unsafe,” she says.
The frightful condition of being “locked in” came
into the public eye in the late 1990s, when French journalist and
Elle Magazine editor Jean-Dominique Bauby, after suffering a massive
stroke, painstakingly “dictated” a beautiful and moving memoir by
blinking his left eyelid.
“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” published
two days before he died, became an international bestseller.
Had BCI technology been available to him, Bauby
would almost certainly have been able to write his book unassisted,
and in a fraction of the time.
The Wadsworth system, one of several that detects
electroencephalographic (EEG) activity, is based on an algorithm
that analyzes the brain waves and identifies peaks in activity that
correspond to particular mental efforts.
As Dr. Brunner concentrates on the “B” of
“bonjour” in a keyboard-like grid of letters and symbols taking up
half the screen, a computer randomly highlights lines of characters
in rapid succession.
Each time the row — vertical or horizontal —
containing the letter “B” is illuminated, Brunner’s brain emits a
slightly stronger signal. It takes the computer about 15 seconds to
figure out what letter he is looking at. The system is doubly
adaptive, with both the software and the person using it becoming
more efficient over time.
“It may not sound very practical, but for someone
who is paralyzed it can make all the difference in the world,” says
Indeed, for at least one 48-year old
neurobiologist in the United States stricken with amyotrophic
lateral sclerosis — an invariably fatal degenerative disease that
attacks nerve cells — the Wadsworth BCI technology has make it
possible not only to communicate but to continue working, even
though he can no longer even move his eyes.
“He writes grant proposals, sends e-mails and can
use the keyboard of a computer at home,” Sellers said of the man,
whom she did not identify in order to protect his privacy.
He even wrote a message for the exhibition in
Paris, which Sellers projected onto a screen.
“To Altran,” he began, referring to the French
innovation consulting firm that sponsors an annual competition for
public service innovation, won in 2005 by the head of the Wadworth
Center, Jonathan Wolpaw.
“I am a neuroscientist who couldn’t work without
BCI,” the message read, typo and all. “I am writing this with my EEG
courtesy of the Wadsworth Center Brain-Computer Interface Research