A New Brain-Computer Interface to Help Patients with ALS and Spinal Cord Injuries Communicate

A new brain-computer interface (BCI) was developed recently that is believed to be quicker and more accurate than the previous BCIs and it uses handwriting as an underlying principle to type texts on the computer. In this BCI, a person mentally writes letters, words, or sentences and the algorithms of the BCI’s computer record the activities within the brain and train themselves according to the neural patterns. This system can then write new sentences in real-time as the person mentally writes sentences. Previously, the main focus of BCI was on improving motor skills like grasping and using point and click typing to generate text on a computer screen.Brain

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This BCI is useful for people who have neurological conditions like amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) or who have suffered spinal cord injuries. It should be understood that although the person can not move his/her part of the body, the brain signals are still produced in a person’s brain who has suffered a spinal cord injury. In this interface, those brain signals are used to train computer algorithms and generate text on the computer screen. In the current BCI, the participant copied 26 lower-case letters as well as a few punctuations from a computer screen and mentally wrote those sentences. The electrodes were implanted in the brain which recorded these mental activities from 200 different neurons and these signals were used to generate text on a computer screen and also, these signals were used to train the algorithms in the computer. After a few training exercises, the participant was able to write new sentences. Furthermore, the participant achieved a typing speed of 90 characters per minute as compared to a typing speed of 40 characters in the point and click systems.

This study was a collaborative project between Dr. Leigh Hochberg from Brown University and Dr. Shenoy and Jiamie Henderson at Standford University. The required surgery for placing the electrodes in the brain was performed by Dr. Henderson.

Impact of this study

Researchers have termed this study as an important achievement in the arena of BCIs. They think that this current system is a significant improvement over the previous BCI systems. They also believe that although the current systems will need significant advancement and further testing will be required, the current results present a significant way forward for patients who are unable to communicate with a computer effectively. The current technology can provide a potential solution for people with paralysis or locked-in syndrome because of stroke or advanced ALS. Moreover, the knowledge gained will be crucial for further developments.

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Future direction

Currently, the safety of this BCI is being tested in a clinical trial called BrainGate2. Going forward, the researchers aim to test this interface in a patient who is unable to speak due to advanced ALS and they also aim to increase the number and vary the characters in the provided text for the participant.


This study was funded by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) and the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) and the National Institutes of Health’s Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies® (BRAIN) Initiative. The study was originally published in Nature.

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High-performance brain-to-text communication via handwriting



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