Type with your thoughts, not your hands

Dr. Maureen Clerc at TEDxCannes 2016 (Photo: Carmen Blike & Marco Breiter)

Dr. Maureen Clerc at TEDxCannes 2016 (Photo: Carmen Blike & Marco Breiter)

Maureen Clerc is one of the many researchers who specializes in developing and testing devices to be controlled by human brain waves. Clerc works on a device called the P300-Speller, a keyboard that lets people spell out words using only their brain. At TEDxCannes, Clerc explains how brain-computer interfaces like this work — by detecting the neural signals that say, “I want to move my arm,” or “I want to type this letter” — and translating them into instructions for a computer.

A patient uses the P300-Speller at the Centre Hospitalier Universitaire de Nice, France (Photo: Maureen Clerc)

A patient uses the P300-Speller at the Centre Hospitalier Universitaire de Nice, France (Photo: Maureen Clerc)

“[The P300-Speller is] composed of a keyboard whose letters flash on the screen,” Clerc says. “Whenever the letter that the person wants to spell flashes, it triggers [brain] activity.” The Speller then translates this brain activity into letters, then spelled-out words. Clerc and her team at the French Institute for Research in Computer Science and Automation are using the P300-Speller to help patients with ALS communicate, by “open[ing] new communication channels between the brain and its environment [that do not] necessarily pass through the muscles,” she says.

But the P300-Speller is only one brain-computer interface, Cleric says. Other teams are working on interfaces that help with physical movement, like Brown University’s BrainGate — an interface that has allowed patients with paralysis to control a robotic arm with their thoughts.

Clerc explains how devices like BrainGate work: “If a person imagines moving their right arm, it triggers a brain activity which is very similar to the one obtained if they actually moved their arm … So we can use that information and turn it into real action. We equip their arm with a motorized orthosis that will trigger the movement that the person can no longer trigger themselves,” she says.

Researchers are using¬† brain-computer interfaces like this as a means of stroke rehabilitation, Clerc says, a method that she hopes could — someday — completely reverse paralysis and help patients’ brains “develop new connections that will gradually allow it to recover movement.”

For more, watch Clerc’s whole talk below (in French with English subtitles):

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