Brain device gives Hawking hope of communicating

Apr 06, 2012, 08:55 IST | Agencies

Already surrounded by machines that allow him, painstakingly, to communicate, the physicist Stephen Hawking last year donned what looked like a rakish black headband that held a feather-light device the size of a small matchbox

Called the iBrain, this simple-looking contraption is part of an experiment that aims to allow Professor Hawking — long paralysed by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease — to communicate by merely thinking.

It was invented by a team led by Philip Low, a 32-year-old neuroscientist. “The iBrain can collect data in real time in a person’s own bed, or when they’re watching TV, or doing just about anything,” said Dr Low.

Of the Hawking experiment, he said, “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.”

The researchers travelled to Professor Hawking’s offices in England, fitted him with the iBrain and asked him “to imagine that he was scrunching his right hand into a ball”.

An algorithm was able to discern Professor Hawking’s thoughts as signals, which were represented as a series of spikes on a grid.

These preliminary results come as Professor Hawking’s ability to communicate diminishes as his disease progresses. The physicist now needs several minutes to generate a simple message.

“Dr Low and his company have done some outstanding work in this field,” Professor Hawking said in a statement.

“I am participating in this project in the hope that I can offer insights and practical advice. I wish… most importantly, to offer some future hope to people diagnosed with ALS and other neurodegenerative conditions.”

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