I always wanted to control a computer with my mind, and this week I got to do just that. I was at the Wadsworth Center in Albany, where brain injury researcher Jonathan Wolpaw is developing a computer-brain interface system that allows people who are paralysed communicate with their loved ones through a computer screen.
I typed text on a computer with my thoughts
The system itself is surprisingly simple. The first step is to don a hat resembling a swim cap that records brain activity thanks to a set of gel-filled electrodes embedded in the fabric. Then you’re asked to concentrate on a specific letter within a matrix of other letters on a computer screen. Each letter displays a unique flashing pattern, so when you focus on one, your brain activity mirrors that letter’s flashing pattern, and the computer can figure out which part of the flashing matrix has caught your attention. Writing a whole word with this system certainly isn’t quick — picking out a single letter takes about 15 seconds — and the cap I had to wear definitely wasn’t comfortable, but it still worked. I typed text on a computer with my thoughts.
Yet somehow, that wasn’t the most striking part of my day. What sticks out in my mind about my conversation with Wolpaw is how the computer-brain interface system he’s developing helps people who suffer from advanced forms of paralysis maintain the will to live.
The computer-brain interface system helps people maintain the will to live
"With the advent of life-support technologies such as home ventilators, it’s possible for people who are severely disabled to continue to live for long periods of time," Wolpaw said. But one of the big issues for people in these situations is that they want to continue to communicate. "If they lose that," he said, "a lot of the reason for continuing to live goes as well."
This shouldn’t be all that surprising. Being able to interact with other humans is fundamental to our species’ well-being. And from a developmental standpoint, it’s absolutely essential. Children that are deprived of human interaction in the first few years of their lives often have trouble learning human language and display significant cognitive deficits. They also experience high rates of anxiety and depression, and people who experience intense isolation later in life are more likely to report poor physical health. So although there’s no substitute for human touch, technologies like phones, the internet, and the written word are all part of an ecosystem that allows us to maintain ties with the outside world.
In short, anything that keeps us "talking" can be life-sustaining, and Wolpaw’s computer-brain interface system is a real-world example of how technology achieves just that.