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

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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.

Philip Sabes, a researcher at the University of California, San Francisco, who was not involved in the project, called the results a “big breakthrough” and said that experimental brain-reading technology could be ready to leave the lab and become a useful product soon.  

“The performance in this paper is already at a level which many people who cannot speak would want, if the device were ready,” says Sabes. “People are going to want this.”

People without speech deficits typically talk at a rate of about 160 words a minute. Even in an era of keyboards, thumb-typing, emojis, and internet abbreviations, speech remains the fastest form of human-to-human communication.

The new research was carried out at Stanford University. The preprint, published January 21, began drawing extra attention on Twitter and other social media because of the death this week of its co-lead author, Krishna Shenoy, from pancreatic cancer.

Shenoy had devoted his career to improving the speed of communication through brain interfaces, carefully maintaining a list of records on his personal website. In 2019, another volunteer Shenoy worked with managed to use his thoughts to type at a rate of 18 words a minutes, a record performance at the time, as we related in MIT Technology Review’s special issue on computing.

The brain-computer interfaces ...

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