Stephen Hawking 370.
(photo credit: Sheryl Nadler/Reuters)
Almost completely paralyzed people such as British theoretical physicist Prof.
Stephen Hawking might one day benefit from Israeli and US research that
identified a structured neurological code for syllables and could let them
“speak” virtually by connecting the brain to a computer.
The work, just
published in the prestigious Nature Communications online journal, was conducted
by Prof. Shy Shoham and Dr. Ariel Tankus of the biomedical engineering faculty
at Haifa’s Technion- Israel Institute of Technology and Prof. Itzhak Fried of
Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center and the neurosurgery department at the
University of California at Los Angeles.
The team experimented on 11 US
patients at UCLA who suffered from severe epilepsy that could not be controlled
with medications. They were thus candidates for an electrical implant that could
locate the damaged part of the brain that caused their seizures.
patients who receive electrical implants for controlling Parkinson’s disease in
one procedure, epileptics have to undergo surgery to determine where the
electrodes would best be located, with testing over two weeks, and then another
operation to surgically remove the misfiring neural tissue.
during this two-week period that we tested the patients, who were aged 19 to 53,
to test their brain reactions when they spoke,” Shoham told The Jerusalem Post
Human speech sounds are produced through a coordinated
movement of structures along a vocal tract, the researchers wrote. “Here we show
highly structured neuronal encoding of vowel articulation.”
nerve cells in the anterior cingulate cortex region of the brain and how these
reacted when the epileptics spoke. When they voiced different vowels,
mathematical algorithms were used to see how the section of the brain
At present, people with “locked-in syndrome” who are unable to
speak or operate most of their muscles are able to communicate by batting their
eyelids when a light passes over letters in the alphabet and reaches the one
They are thus laboriously able to put the letters together
into words and sentences, as Hawking – who has suffered from Lou Gehrig’s
disease since early adulthood – does today five decades later. It takes minutes
to complete a sentence.
There was research at the Weizmann Institute of
Science that found controlled breathing into a tube could be used to select
letters or syllables.
“We performed both sharp and gradual tuning. We
found neurons that react to specific vowels,” said Shoham. If the brain’s
language center/computer interface is successfully developed further and the
whole range of vowels and consonants can be recognized as a structured code, he
continued, the patient might be able to communication merely by trying to speak
but being unable to produce sounds.
“This is the first step but an
important one,” Shoham said.
Fried, a veteran neurosurgeon who shuttles
between Tel Aviv and Los Angeles – he performs neurosurgery at both hospitals –
performed the electrode implants, while Tankus recorded the data and analyzed it
together with Shoham.
A wireless connection between the brain and any
computer could then “translate” what he intended to say into artificial speech.
“It is so far very promising,” said Shoham, “but I can’t say how long it would
take. There are only a handful of Israelis with the need for such a device but
thousands around the world. There are many more people who suffer from
less serious paralysis and speech difficulty who could benefit.”
did his doctorate on brain/machine interfaces 11 years ago, and since then has
worked with a lab team to develop devices for neural engineering, including a
retina implant to help the blind to see.
“For the speech interface, we
would need electrodes only to record and not to stimulate – unlike an electrode
to permanently stimulate a part of the brain for Parkinson’s
disease. Thus our device would require less power and could be wireless,”