Breakthrough Stanford research lets paralyzed man write with brain implant

PALO ALTO, Calif. (KGO) -- In a major scientific breakthrough, Stanford researchers have given a paralyzed man the ability to write texts just by thinking of the letters.

An upper body spinal cord injury left the 65-year old unable to use his arms.

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Researchers credit the watershed moment to implanting baby aspirin-sized chips in the outer part of the subject's brain.

"We are recording electrical activity from hundreds of individual cells or neurons, and while we have to go through an initial calibration to know how each neuron responds to each desired movement direction, we can learn that rapidly in just 10 or 15 minutes," said Krishna Shenoy, PhD, a Stanford professor of electrical engineering.

First, the man mentally spells out his thoughts.

An algorithm translates the electrical impulses into text at a rate of 18 words per minute.

That's just slightly below the 23 words per minute rate that an able-bodied person of similar age could do.

Frank Willett is the lead research scientist at Stanford.

"That's very exciting that even though his hand hasn't moved for 10 years and he hasn't been able to write at all, it still generates beautiful brain activity," Dr. Willett said.

The technology represents a major step forward compared to four years ago, when researchers were training patients to text with a virtual keyboard and cursor to select letters.

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"So just raw typing without any autocorrect or anything, he can get about 95% of the letters correct, and then if you add autocorrect like you would on your smartphone, you can get above 99% accuracy," says Dr. Willett.

Stanford researchers believe this technology will enable a wide range of people with spinal cord injuries or a neurological disorder such as ALS to communicate faster on mobile devices.

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