World renowned scientist Stephen Hawking has given so much to the world of physics. Now he’s doing what he can for biology – and perhaps he will benefit from the experience himself in a big way. Hawking is testing the iBrain, a user-friendly brain scanner that can be worn all the time. At the very least the tests will help to improve the iBrain, but if things go exceedingly well, the device could help Hawking to speak.
Hawking suffers from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig’s disease, a condition in which neurons involved in controlling movement are impaired or dead. As is the case with Hawking, the disease leaves many of its victims severely handicapped. Already having difficulties communicating, a tracheotomy in 1985 removed Hawking’s ability to speak altogether. Right now, in order talk Hawking relies on a tiny IR sensor that detects twitches in his cheek muscle. To formulate words, let alone sentences, is time-consuming and tedious task.
Last summer the founder of NeuroVigil, Philip Low, brought one of his company’s brain scanners to Hawking’s house in Cambridge, England. Low hopes that the iBrain will be able to read the 70-year-old physicist’s brain signals and send them to a computer where they would be translated into speech.
They’re only getting started, however, and it is really way too early to know if the iBrain will be effective, but Low recently announced some encouraging, albeit very preliminary results. During his visit, Low asked Hawking to think about making a fist. Even though he is incapable of actually making a fist, just by thinking of it, the neurons in his motor cortex still “commanded” his hand to do it. The iBrain was able to see the change in brain activity that corresponded to the command. Like I said, pretty preliminary. Detecting a change from a clenched fist is a far cry from translating brain activity into words and sentences. Low plans on returning to Hawking’s house this summer to continue the study.
Even if the iBrain works, the best case scenario is not likely to be one in which Hawking can prattle off whole sentences. We probably won't hear, "I am hungry and I want a hamburger with lettuce and tomato, with onions on the side." It'll probably more like, "Hungry." But even that would be a major advance over having to count out letters with cheek ticks where even short phrases take a while to compose.
Similar work offers hope that Low’s iBrain may just be the neural interface to give Hawking a new voice. Scientists at the University of California, Berkeley placed a net of electrodes directly on the brain and were able to reconstruct words that people heard based on the corresponding brain activity. Because the way the brain processes speech is thought to be similar to how it generates speech, the scientists are hopeful that they can one day synthesize speech based solely on brain activity – exactly what Low is trying to do with the iBrain.
In another study, Boston University’s Speech Lab implanted electrodes into the speech center of the brain. Signals were transmitted wirelessly to a computer that then converted the brain activity into words generated by a speech synthesizer.
But what sets the iBrain apart is its simplicity. Far less invasive than putting electrodes directly on or in the brain, the iBrain is a matchbox-sized device that you strap on like a head lamp. The iBrain was Low’s PhD project at the University of California, San Diego. Like a harness of electrodes covering the scalp, the iBrain records electroencephalogram (EEG) signals. Unlike the series of electrodes that are normally involved in EEG recordings – often 16 or more – the iBrain has just one electrode. Low got around the need for multi-point triangulation by coming up with an algorithm that computes where the signals are coming from. The data is sent wirelessly to a computer or even a cell phone. The fact that the iBrain can be worn at all times, even during sleep, means the maximum amount of data can be collected. It gives them the best chance for translating Hawking’s thoughts into speech.
You really can do a lot of things with a wearable brain scanner. NeuroVigil is already using the iBrain to study sleep disorders and other neurological diseases, and measure the effects of drugs on brain function. In 2009 the company began collaborating with Hoffmann-La Roche in clinical trials to see how different drugs affect brain activity.
Following his next trip to Cambridge, Low will stick around and he and Hawking will present their results at the Francis Crick Memorial Conference taking place in the city this July. I have no doubt that it’ll be quite a show. Hopefully we'll hear some good news from both men.