Brain scanner can help the paralysed communicate
A new brain scanning machine has been built which the developers state can help people who are completely paralysed to communicate because it is able to convert their thoughts into words.
Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (FMRI), it helps patients choose 27 characters to spell words. The 27th character is a blank space.
The study, which appears in the Current Biology journal from Cell Press, says that the technique identifies different blood patterns in the brain and interprets them to know what letter the person is thinking of.
The technique has been used successfully by British neuroscientist Adrian Owen. He helped a man who had been in a vegetative state for more than five years to answer questions with yes and no answers from his brain activity.
One of the key researchers, Bettina Sorger of Maastricht University in Holland, told the BBC: "This novel spelling device constitutes an alternative approach to motor-independent communication.
"The work of Adrian Owen and colleagues led me to wonder whether it might even become possible to use fMRI, mental tasks, and appropriate experimental designs to freely encode thoughts, letter-by-letter, and therewith enable back-and-forth communication in the absence of motor behaviour."
The developments have been welcomed by the British Neuroscience Association (BNA), who said that it could provide "a lifeline" to those unfortunately suffering with neurological problems.
Elaine Snell, spokeswoman for the BNA, 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."
Dr Guy Williams from the Wolfson Brain Imaging Centre in Cambridge added that the technique may need to be adapted before it can be widely used in the medical profession but its creation is a major step forwards.