Eight years ago a car accident left Eric Ramsey aware but paralyzed and only able to communicate with eye movements. In a pioneering experiment, neuroscientists at Boston University (BU) are listening in on a small area in his brain in the hope of giving him back his “voice.”
The 27-year-old man is the first patient to receive the implants, according to Britain’s The Times newspaper on November 15. They record the signals generated from 41 neurons in the area of the brain that governs speech. Ramsey has been asked to concentrate on imagining the vowel sounds “oh”, “ee” and “oo” while scientists examine the patterns of activity that the electrodes record.
The researchers, led by Dr. Jonathan Brumberg at BU, believe they can identify correctly the sound that Ramsey is imagining 80 percent of the time. The researcher, who presented the results at the Society for Neuroscience conference in San Diego, said that the team was about to begin translating these thoughts into synthesized sounds through a computer. Ramsey will then be able to provide direct feedback on whether the sound is correct, allowing him to tune the system for accuracy. The aim is to enable him to speak through the computer, purely by thinking of the sounds he wishes to say.
Once the researchers achieve this target, they will extend the range of sounds to other vowels and also consonants, with the ultimate aim of enabling Ramsey to hold conversations.
Since this is the first time that such an experiment is being done, the researchers concede that it will take a long time before they may restore speech to Ramsey.
The breakthrough that holds promise for Ramsey could lead to enabling technology and ergonomic solutions for brain injury victims in general, and also for people impaired from drug overdose, stroke and diseases that damage nerve cells.
Source: The Times; BBC