The concept of reading a person’s thoughts has largely been reserved for sci-fi films and novels, but new research out of Stanford University is proving this to be a realistic idea.
For the past five years, a man who became quadriplegic in 2007 has participated in the study by the university that was investigating whether the brain activity of a paralyzed individual could be decoded in a way that allowed a person’s thoughts about handwriting to translate into actual text on a screen.
The man who tested the device cannot move his arms or legs following a “freak accident,” NPR reports. “He was taking out the garbage, slipped, fell, and instantly became quadriplegic. So he’s essentially completely paralyzed,” says study co-author Dr. Jamie Henderson.
These type of spinal cord injuries have no cure, since damage to those nerves cannot be repaired. Consequently, motor function connected with those particular nerves are permanently lost. This severe impact is what drives research in this area, which hopes to allow paralyzed individuals the ability to regain some of the capabilities lost to them after injury.
On Wednesday, May 12, these scientists reported in the journal NATURE that a procedure had been successful in accomplishing that goal. By imagining he was writing words on a piece of paper, the paralyzed man was able to type his thoughts with 95% accuracy.
“What we found, surprisingly, is that [he] can type at about 90 characters per minute,” says Dr. Krishna Shenoy of Stanford University and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
The scientists are hoping to replicate the results again in other test subjects, and if successful, they would then look into commercializing the procedure for widespread use.
“He was very happy when he was able to write out messages in response to the questions we asked him,” Henderson said. “He was pretty excited about this.”
“I was introduced to this concept over 10 years ago, and I thought it was quite a bit of science fiction,” Henderson continued. “Then roughly about five years later it was shown to be not to be such science fiction after all. So I think we’re seeing a progression. It’s really quite exciting.”
This new development will allow paralyzed individuals, and others who can no longer communicate in various ways, to communicate at a much faster speed than previous technology allowed.