iBrain Reads Thoughts Of Stephen Hawking To Help Him Speak
The gadget resembles a black headband, and is designed to help Hawking, who has long suffered with Lou Gehrig’s disease, communicate by merely thinking.
The research is being led by Philip Low, a 32-year-old neuroscientist and CEO of NeuroVigil, who hopes the new device will help the 70-year-old physicist to “speak” more freely.
Hawking currently speaks through special infrared glasses that detect tiny twitches in his cheek. But it’s a slow, demanding and tiresome process that often takes several minutes to create a short message.
The iBrain is part of the next generation of portable brain scanners that use algorithms designed to monitor and diagnose conditions such as autism, depression, schizophrenia and sleep apnea in real time.
Indeed, the iBrain is being looked at as a possible alternative to costly sleep labs.
The device uses a single channel to detect waves of electrical brain signals, which are altered by different activities and thoughts, or by brain disorders. However, these raw waves are difficult to interpret because they must pass through the brain and then the skull.
So Dr. Low uses an algorithm he created for his Ph.D. in 2007 to read the waves.
“The idea is to see if Stephen can use his mind to create a consistent and repeatable pattern that a computer can translate into, say, a word or letter or a command for a computer,” Dr. Low explained.
The researchers visited Dr. Hawking at his offices in Cambridge, England, and fitted him with the iBrain headband. Next, they asked him “to imagine that he was scrunching his right hand into a ball.”
“Of course, he can’t actually move his hand, but the motor cortex in his brain can still issue the command and generate electrical waves in his brain,” Dr. Low said.
The algorithm, known as Spears, was able to discern Hawking’s thoughts as signals, which were then represented as a series of spikes on a grid.
“We wanted to see if there was any change in the signal,” Dr. Low said.
“And in fact, we did see a change in the signal.”
The preliminary results come as Dr. Hawking’s ability to communicate deteriorates as he further loses the ability to control his body.
“Dr. Low and his company have done some outstanding work in this field,” Dr. Hawking said in a statement.
“I am participating in this project in the hope that I can offer insights and practical advice to NeuroVigil. I wish to assist in research, encourage investment in this area, and, most importantly, to offer some future hope to people diagnosed with A.L.S. and other neurodegenerative conditions.”
NeuroVigil said they plan to repeat the study in large populations of patients with Lou Gehrig’s and other neurodegenerative diseases.
Scientists uninvolved with Dr. Low’s work have praised the iBrain’s potential.
“Philip Low’s device is one of the best single-channel brain monitors out there,” Ruth O’Hara, an associate professor at Stanford University Medical School who plans to use the iBrain for autism studies, told David Ewing Duncan of the New York Times.
“The preliminary data I have seen is compelling. It could be a significant contribution to the field as a window into brain architecture,” she said during an interview with Duncan.
Dr. Terry Heiman-Patterson, a neurologist and A.L.S. specialist at the Drexel University College of Medicine, said she was in talks with NeuroVigil to use the iBrain on A.L.S. patients, to compare the outcomes with those of patients using instruments using multiple channels and electrodes.
“Dr. Low is researching signals that look for intent, which is becoming very exciting because it looks like they may be able to do it — for Stephen Hawking and for others with A.L.S.,” Dr. Heiman-Patterson said.
“Patients want to be able to communicate beyond the yes or no with an eye blink. They want to send an e-mail, and turn off the light and, even more, to have a meaningful conversation,” she told The Times.
NeuroVigil said it will continue to work with Dr. Hawking and his team to improve and refine their technology to decipher signals generated by Dr. Hawking’s thoughts.
“At the moment I think my cheek switch is faster…but should the position change I will try Philip Low’s system,” ” said Dr. Hawking in an e-mail sent to The Times by an assistant.
There is much work ahead to reach that point, including the integration of Dr. Hawking’s brain waves with the computers and devices that allow him to communicate.
“Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a mind like Stephen Hawking’s be able to communicate even a little bit better?” said Dr. Low.
Dr. Low plans to work with Dr. Hawking again this summer in Cambridge, where they will present their initial data at a neuroscience conference in July.
NeuroVigil has not disclosed how much the iBrain device will cost.
Dr. Low’s original research, created for his Ph.D. earned in 2007 at the University of California, San Diego, was published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and can be viewed here.