In a world of Facebook, MySpace, and other social networking sites, it is easy to stay in touch 24/7 with friends and family. E-mails have been replaced with “tweets,” and texting has become a substitute for phone calls. Remaining in the loop is simple for most, but what about those who are unable to communicate due to paralysis? Do immobility and loss of speech function mean connecting to the masses is completely out of the question? Not anymore!
Adam Wilson, a biomedical engineering doctoral student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and his supervisor, Justin Williams, created a computer interface that uses brain waves to type messages to Twitter, the social messaging site that asks the question, “What are you doing?” They are hoping this technology can be used by people afflicted with locked-in syndrome. This syndrome is used to describe the consequence of diseases and injuries such as Lou Gehrig’s and brainstem strokes that leave its victims immobile, but with fully functioning brain capacity.
The way “Brain-Twitter” works is through a cap fixed with electrodes. The user wears the cap while letters of the alphabet flash on a computer screen. The brain waves that are emitted when the letter of choice is shown are recognized by the cap and are then used to create the desired message to be communicated. Twitter’s 140 character limit is perfect for conveying short messages to numerous people. Although it may take several minutes to put together a message, it is a promising advancement in brain-computer interface technology that will hopefully get better with practice and further research.
While trials still need to be conducted with people actually dealing with locked-in syndrome, it is hard not to anticipate how truly life-changing this technology could prove to be. Twitter may one day be asking “What are you thinking?” instead of “What are you doing?”
Source: Greene, R. A. (April 2009). “Brain-twitter project offers hope to paralyzed patients.” On CNN.com. Retrieved April 2009 from http://www.cnn.com/2009/HEALTH/04/22/twitter.locked.in/index.html.