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Stephen Hawking to demonstrate speech via brain scan

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Next month Professor Stephen Hawking will provide details of how a brain-scanning headcap will enable him to communicate more easily.

At the Francis Crick Memorial Conference on July 7 in Cambridge, Hawking – and Dr. Philip Low, formerly of Stanford University's School of Medicine - will show how a non-invasive portable scanner can be used to formulate speech by tracking certain electrical patterns in the brain.

Dr. Low has developed a device called the iBrain, which consists of a single sensor worn on a portable skull cap. It can record electrical responses from the surface and interior of the brain, and match those to a library of recorded data from past studies to match the activity to a desired action.

The device was used to monitor Hawking's brain while he was concentrating on moving his hands and feet. Once those signals had been mapped they could be used to formulate control computer functions without the need for any external physical interaction with a computer – although the iBrain does carry a USB port for uploading.

"During the attempted movements, the subject's brain activity demonstrated distinct broad-spectrum pulses extending to the Gamma and ultra-high Gamma ranges. Such pulses were present in the absence of actual movement and absent when the subject was not attempting motion," the conference schedule states.

"The emergence of such high bandwidth biomarkers opens the possibility to link intended movements to a library of words and convert them into speech, thus providing ALS sufferers with communication tools more dependent on the brain than on the body."

Brain scanning is nothing new in itself; there are plenty of people doing it. But Low says the industry is missing the wood for the trees. Many sophisticated brain scanner use as many sensors as possible to map the electrical signals that make up thought. But in doing so he suggests this corrupts the data they collect.

Instead, Low – who is commercializing the iBrain via his company NeuroVigil – is banking on a single, more powerful sensor, which can read functions inside the brain and around specific sections in the precortex. He claims the iBrain can map five times more signals that current brain sensing systems as a result.

And if anyone needs this kind of technology, it's The Hawk. Hawking's advanced motor neuron disease limits him to composing words via twitches in his facial muscles, but this is very slow and - as the illness progress – increasingly untenable. Being able to control a computer via thought could let the man with so much to tell find a faster way to spread the word. ®

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