An ALS patient set a record communicating through a brain implant: 62 words per minute

Eight years ago, a patient lost her power of speech because of ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, which causes progressive paralysis. She can still make sounds, but her words have become unintelligible, leaving her reliant on a writing board or iPad to communicate.

Now, after volunteering to receive a brain implant, the woman has been able to rapidly communicate phrases like “I don’t own my home” and “It’s just tough” at a rate approaching normal speech.

That is the claim in a paper published over the weekend on the website bioRxiv by a team at Stanford University. The study has not been formally reviewed by other researchers. The scientists say their volunteer, identified only as “subject T12,” smashed previous records by using the brain-reading implant to communicate at a rate of 62 words a minute, three times the previous best.


The brain-computer interfaces that Shenoy’s team works with involve a small pad of sharp electrodes embedded in a person’s motor cortex, the brain region most involved in movement. This allows researchers to record activity from a few dozen neurons at once and find patterns that reflect what motions someone is thinking of, even if the person is paralyzed.

In previous work, paralyzed volunteers have been asked to imagine making hand movements. By “decoding” their neural signals in real time, implants have let them steer a cursor around a screen, pick out letters on a virtual keyboard, play video games, or even control a robotic arm.

In the new research, the Stanford team wanted to know if neurons in the motor cortex contained useful information about speech movements, too. That is, could they detect how “subject T12” was trying to move her mouth, tongue, and vocal cords as she attempted to talk?

These are small, subtle movements, and according to Sabes, one big discovery is that just a few neurons contained enough information to let a computer program predict, with good accuracy, what words the patient was trying to say. That information was conveyed by Shenoy’s team to a computer screen, where the patient’s words appeared as they were spoken by the computer.


Shenoy’s group is part of a consortium called BrainGate that has placed electrodes into the brains of more than a dozen volunteers. They use an implant called the Utah Array, a rigid metal square with about 100 needle-like electrodes.

Some companies, including Elon Musk’s brain interface company, Neuralink, and a startup called Paradromics, say they have developed more modern interfaces that can record from thousands—even tens of thousands—of neurons at once.

While some skeptics have asked whether measuring from more neurons at one time will make any difference, the new report suggests it will, especially if the job is to brain-read complex movements such as speech.

The Stanford scientists found that the more neurons they read from at once, the fewer errors they made in understanding what “T12” was trying to say.

“This is a big deal, because it suggests efforts by companies like Neuralink to put 1,000 electrodes into the brain will make a difference, if the task is sufficiently rich,” says Sabes, who previously worked as a senior scientist at Neuralink.

Source: An ALS patient set a record communicating through a brain implant: 62 words per minute | MIT Technology Review

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