By: Lauren Saccone
The mind of Professor Stephen Hawking is the stuff of legend. Considered one of the most intelligent people on Earth, Hawking is as famous for his brilliant scientific achievements as for his public persona. Suffering from advanced Lou Gehrig’s disease, Hawking has spent most of his life in a wheelchair. He is unable to speak, instead relying on a computerized voice to communicate. But next month, scientists are determined to explore one of the most compelling minds on the planet – literally.
Hawking, 70, has been working closely with scientists on a project that may allow him greater ease in communication. These scientists will attempt to ‘hack’ into Dr. Hawking’s mind using a tool called the iBrain. This non-invasive technology will allow speech to be formed by tracking certain electrical patterns created by the brain.
This could prove an enormous boon to Dr. Hawking. Currently he speaks through a computer voice generated by an infrared sensor attached to his eyeglasses, which picks up the twitches and blinks and translates them into words. But Hawking’s disease has progressed to the point where even the muscles controlling the device have deteriorated. The scientist now struggles to express himself in one word per minute.
But the iBrain has even loftier goals than making communication easier for Dr. Hawking. Scientists have used the device to monitor Hawking’s brain as he focused on moving his hands and feet. They recorded the signals put out by his brain as he moved. In theory, they will be able to replicate these brain patterns and allow the user to control prosthetic devices.
“We’re building technology that will allow humanity to have access to the human brain for the first time,” said Professor Philip Low, who developed the iBrain. “The emergence of such biomarkers opens the possibility to link intended movements to a library of words and convert them into speech, thus providing motor neuron sufferers with communication tools more dependent on the brain than on the body.”
Besides helping Dr. Hawking to communicate with greater ease, this device could have major medical implications. For the first time, scientists will be able to map the brain and interact with it directly, without a lot of extraneous equipment impeding the process. Scientists tentatively have theorized that the device could be used in autism research and monitoring a variety of other brain conditions, including depression and sleep apnea.
Hawking and the scientists behind the iBrain will unveil their findings on July 7th at Cambridge University in a major demonstration. If all goes as planned, Low hopes to commercialize the iBrain through his company NeuroVigil and eventually make it available to the public.
“This is the first step to personalized medicine,” Low said to reporters.
As exciting as this potential technology is, not everyone is sold on the idea. Mapping the brain is largely theoretical, and its practical applications are still up for debate. But should Low’s device prove successful, it could change how people with motor neuron disease express themselves. In Dr. Hawking’s case, it would finally allow a man with a mind far beyond the norm to share his thoughts as quickly as they come to him.
[Pic via Flickr - elhombredenegro]