Writing with your brain: the potential of brain implants for paralysed people

brain implants could help write with your brain instead of with your hands
Photo: Soumil Kumar / Pexels.com

If you’re like me and spent hours of your day sitting at a desk typing on a keyboard, I am sure you have imagined how cool it’d be to just have your thoughts translated into typed words just like that. Well, new research on brain implants recently published in the journal Nature 1has shown that imagined words can get translated into text.

Thanks to a couple of micro-electrode grids implanted into the brain, a 65-year-old man paralysed from the neck down due to spinal injury, could “write” his imagined words in a screen. The brain implants were located in the region that controls finger and hand movements, and an algorithm developed to read the neural activity patterns produced while imagining drawing the letters produced the text on the screen.

The most amazing thing from this particular brain-computer-interface is that just using brain activity, the algorithm could produce up to 15 words per minute (about 90 characters/min), a speed similar to that of people in the same age range when typing on smartphones. Another interesting aspect of the research is that even though the man had been paralysed for years, and so he hadn’t been capable of using his hands/fingers for a long time, the neural pathways responsible for the hand movements involved in writing were as fresh as if used regularly, which increases the applicability of the technology even to the long-term paralysed.

However, this technology is still in its infancy and further research is needed in more patients, with different kinds of paralysis –incapable of movement and speech, for instance– to test the limits of the technology.

And, even though the technology is developed to help people who cannot communicate in normal ways due to paralysis, who says that 50 years from now we won’t be saving ourselves the hassle (and sometimes the pain) of directly typing into a keyboard.

p.s. Voice recognition software is an alternative to typing but so far, it is not reliable enough. If not, try to get Alexa to understand a complex sentence.

References

  1. Willett, F.R., Avansino, D.T., Hochberg, L.R. et al. High-performance brain-to-text communication via handwriting. Nature 593, 249–254 (2021). doi: 10.1038/s41586-021-03506-2

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