Can you imagine being trapped in your body, feeling everything, and yet able to do nothing about it? Your nose itches, you need someone to scratch your back, or your feet are cold – how do you communicate this to your care givers, using only the blink of your eye? Yet this is the life that 24-year-old Erik Ramsey is currently living. Erik suffers from what scientists call “locked-in” syndrome. He cannot speak or move, yet he can feel everything. Erik has been “locked-in” since he was 16 years old having suffered a brain stem stroke after a car accident.
Dr Phil Kennedy, chief scientist at Neural Signals Inc, is working to change Erik’s plight through the development of an electrode that detects the neural signals in the speech motor area of Erik’s brain. December 2004 the electrode was implanted in Erik’s brain and then the scientists (and four independent labs), began working on decoding the signals by having Erik think of specific vowel sounds. They are able to then map these sounds and use a synthesizer to reproduce “speech”. CNN reports:
Dr. Frank Guenther, associate professor of cognitive and neural systems at Boston University, said his lab, one of three others pursuing neural signal translation, had a breakthrough recently: They were able to hear the sounds Erik was trying to say using the decoder they built.
“That was a very exciting moment, where we knew this process of taking neural signals and driving a synthesizer was going to work,” Guenther said.
This is still a work in progress, and the scientists are hoping to begin working with Erik to map consonants soon.