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Brain scanner to help paralysed people

2nd July 2012

Patients who are completely paralysed are being helped to speak through a new brain scanner.

The technique uses functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which is often used to track brain activity measuring blood flow, and enables paralysed people to speak by enabling them to spell words using their thoughts.

The system has 27 characters – one for each letter of the alphabet and a blank space – and each one produces a different pattern of blood flow in the brain.

The device then interprets these patterns to form words.

The British Neuroscience Association welcomed the research into the technique, published in a study in Current Biology journal of Cell Press, as an exciting development that could become a lifeline for patients in a persistent vegetative state.

Elaine Snell of the British Neuroscience Association said: “This means of communication will make a huge difference to the quality of their life and to that of their families. This kind of technology can only get better, it's very exciting.”

The research team from Maastricht University in the Netherlands point out that the non-invasive device has a number of advantages in that it requires little training, it is immediately operational and possesses high potential for clinical applications, both in terms of diagnostics and establishing short-term communication.

They have built on previous work by British neuroscientist Adrian Owen, who used fMRI to help a man believed to have been in a vegetative state for five years to answer “yes” and “no” questions by interpreting his brain activity.

 

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