NeuroVigil’s Research Aims to Allow Dr. Stephen Hawking Communicate by Thinking
As we reported almost a year ago, NeuroVigil is a successful BCI company that received more in first round funding than Facebook and Google together. Their flagship product, the iBrain headband is a portable, single-channel EEG recording device, designed for at-home sleep monitoring and diagnosing conditions like sleep apnea, depression and autism. The device is now gaining a lot of attention since it has become part of an experiment that aims to allow Dr. Stephen Hawking – suffering in amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease) – to communicate by thinking.
“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.”
The researchers traveled to Dr. Hawking’s offices in Cambridge, England, fitted him with the iBrain headband and asked him “to imagine that he was scrunching his right hand into a ball,” Dr. Low said. “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.”
“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.” NeuroVigil plans to repeat the study in large populations of patients with ALS and other neurodegenerative diseases.
The 70-year-old physicist, whose mind has produced crucial insights in theoretical physics as well as the best-seller “A Brief History of Time,” now needs several minutes to generate a simple message. He uses a pair of infrared glasses that picks up twitches in his cheek. His team in Cambridge, England, has dubbed this the “cheek switch.”
“At the moment I think my cheek switch is faster” than the brain-computer interface, Dr. Hawking said in an e-mail sent by an assistant, “ but should the position change I will try Philip Low’s system.”
Dr. Terry Heiman-Patterson, a neurologist and ALS specialist at the Drexel University College of Medicine, said she was in discussions with NeuroVigil to use the device on ALS patients, to see how they fared with it in comparison with instruments that use 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 ALS,” 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.”
Dr. Low plans to team up again with Dr. Hawking this summer in Cambridge to present their initial data at the Francis Crick Memorial Conference on 7 July 2012.
Dr. Hawking who has been helped to communicate by Intel for decades, but the IT giant recently said that reading Hawking’s brainwaves is not the first avenue to explore.
Read the full story on The New York Times.