Brain-computer interface translates thought into text

“No keystrokes or voices needed. I created this tweet just thinking about it,” tweeted Philip O’Keefe, a 62-year-old Australian with ALS.

In a technological first, O’Keefe used a computer chip in his brain to send the first “direct reflection tweet”.

What he did: The implant did not require O’Keefe to undergo invasive brain surgery. Instead, in April 2020, it was installed in his jugular vein, using techniques commonly used to treat strokes.

At the time, O’Keefe was already suffering from progressive paralysis due to ALS. By the time the brain-computer interface (BCI) was implanted, his health had deteriorated to the point that he could no longer do many independent activities.

“When I first heard about this technology, I knew how much independence it could give me back,” O’Keefe said, according to a statement from Synchron, the neurotech startup behind the chip.

“The system is amazing, it’s like learning to ride a bike, it takes practice, but once you ride it becomes natural. Now I just think of where on the computer I want to click, and I can email, bank, shop, and now message the world via Twitter.

Since then, O’Keefe has emailed relatives and colleagues and played simple computer games.

“These funny holiday tweets are actually a milestone moment for the field of implantable brain-computer interfaces. They highlight the connection, hope and freedom that BCIs give people like Phil [O’Keefe] who have lost much of their functional independence due to debilitating paralysis,” said Thomas Oxley, CEO of Synchron, which created the brain-computer interface.

Brainwave Decoding: The brain implant, called Stentrode, allows patients to wirelessly control digital equipment with their thoughts. Synchron’s core technology is called a motor neuroprosthesis (MNP), intended for patients paralyzed due to various illnesses.

The Stentrode is placed in a blood vessel above the motor cortex, the part of the brain involved in controlling movement. The brain-computer interface swells after placement, pressing the electrodes against the vessel wall near the brain. This allows it to detect and capture neurological inputs, essentially decoding brain waves and sending them as a wireless signal to the computer or smartphone.

The Stentrode is far from the first device to decode brain waves. Last year, researchers at UC San Francisco created a speech neuroprosthesis that translated thought signals into a vocal tract and text on a computer screen, essentially giving a man with vocal paralysis the ability to speak again.

And in a study published in Nature, a paralyzed man was able to “write” up to 90 characters per minute with a brain-computer interface that decodes signals from the brain when the person thinks about trying writing movements.

Synchron plans to launch its first human study of the brain-computer interface this year, with Elon Musk’s Neuralink, another neurotech startup working on brain-computer interface technology.

After O’Keefe’s initial tweet, which was posted on Oxley’s account, O’Keefe posted seven more tweets, ending his thread with, “Hope I’m paving the way for people to tweet by thought.”

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