Anybody who read the classic American tale Johnny Got His Gun has a slight comprehension of what it’s like to live trapped within your own body, incapable to move, nod, speak or even blink. The mind reels; the body does nothing. Unfortunately, this form of communication-stripped torture isn’t a fictional tale but a reality for many with Locked-in Syndrome (it was featured in the House episode with Mos Def guest starring), which is why the new functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) scanner, Brain Bee, that can translate brain waves into words — is a big deal.
This new system empowers fully paralyzed and ‘locked-in’ people to mentally select letters of the alphabet in their brain, which are recognized and typed out on a screen, serving as a brain-based, non-communicative communication system for those unable to speak, sign or blink to indicate their needs. Researchers are able to recognize letter-based thought patterns by using characteristic blood flow patterns.
Before you conjure up images of telepathy or Vulcan mind melds though, this technology is a little more difficult than that to use. In order to ‘think’ of a letter the technology divides the alphabet into three rows, nine columns and 27 squares (26 letters of the alphabet plus the space bar). Each row is assigned a mental task, a motor-imagery task, a mental calculation task and an inner-speech task, that the subject must perform to select the row. The letters then cycle through and the subject selects the correct one by performing the task as the letter appears on screen. It is a time-consuming process but the technology is rather easy to learn, with test subjects learning it in under an hour.
The system has passed the theoretical and initial testing stages and has become a concept system. Although it is still in its initial phases — it has already shown promising results.