Hawking uses device ‘that reads thoughts’

The iBrain is part of a new generation of portable neural devices

Written by New York Times | San Diego | Published: April 4, 2012 12:58:49 am


Already surrounded by machines that allow him,painstakingly,to communicate,the physicist Stephen Hawking last summer donned what looked like a rakish black headband that held a feather-light device the size of a matchbox.

Called the iBrain,this simple-looking contraption is part of an experiment that aims to allow Dr. Hawking — long paralyzed by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis,or Lou Gehrig’s disease — to communicate by merely thinking.

The iBrain is part of a new generation of portable neural devices and algorithms intended to monitor and diagnose conditions like sleep apnea,depression and autism. Invented by a team led by Philip Low,a 32-year-old neuroscientist who is chief executive of NeuroVigil,a company based in San Diego,the iBrain is gaining attention as a possible alternative to expensive sleep labs that use caps riddled with dozens of electrodes and usually require a patient to stay overnight.

“The iBrain can collect data in real time in a person’s own bed,or when they’re watching TV,or doing just about anything,” Dr. Low said.

The device uses a single channel to pick up waves of electrical brain signals,which change with different activities and thoughts,or with the pathologies that accompany brain disorders. But the raw waves are hard to read because they must pass through the many folds of the brain and then the skull,so they are interpreted with an algorithm that Dr. Low first created for his Ph.D,at the University of California,San Diego.

About the Hawking experiment,he said,“The idea is to see if Stephen can use his mind to create a consistent and repeatable pattern that a computer can translate into,say,a word or letter or a command for a computer.”

The researchers travelled to Hawking’s offices in Cambridge,England,fitted him with the iBrain headband and asked him “to imagine that he was scrunching his right hand into a ball,” Dr. Low said. The algorithm,called Spears,was able to discern Hawking’s thoughts as signals,which were represented as a series of spikes on a grid.

NeuroVigil plans to repeat the study in large populations of patients with A.L.S. and other neurodegenerative diseases. These preliminary results come as Hawking’s ability to communicate diminishes as his disease progresses. The 70-year-old physicist now needs several minutes to generate a simple message. He uses a pair of infrared glasses that picks up twitches in his cheek.

“Dr. Low and his firm have done some outstanding work in this field,” Hawking said in a statement. “I wish to assist in research,encourage investment in this area,and,most importantly,to offer some hope to people diagnosed with A.L.S. and other neurodegenerative conditions.”

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