Iconic physicist Stephen Hawking's condition is getting worse, prompting scientists to apply their research in brain scanning in an effort to help. Called the iBrain, it is hoped that the device will continue to allow Hawking to communicate by sheer thought alone.
Hawking, who is now 70, suffers from a motor neuron disease which caused him to lose his power of speech nearly 30 years ago. He currently uses a pair of infrared glasses that picks up twitches in his cheek. But as his condition continues to degrade, so too does his ability to use this device.
The iBrain is a relatively unobtrusive headband that collects data in real time. It uses a single channel to pick up waves of electrical brain signals, which change with different activities and thoughts.
Working with Philip Low, Chairman and CEO of NeuroVigil, Hawking may be able to use the device to bypass his body completely and tap directly into his brain. The physicist is being taught to create patterns of impulses by imagining moving his hands and limbs. Further refinements of the system could allow Hawking to somehow turn this brain activity into words – but it's not immediately clear if this will ever be possible with iBrain, or if it would be an improvement to his current mode of communication.
That said, the mapping of biomarkers with devices like the iBrain is progressively allowing neuroscientists to exploit this potential. According to Low, "The emergence of such biomarkers opens the possibility to link intended movements to a library of words and convert them into speech, thus providing motor neurone sufferers with communication tools more dependent on the brain than on the body."
Hawking is also working with other developers. Intel recently hooked up a customized computer to communicate with his cheek-reading infrared glasses, along with a voice synthesizer, a webcam for using Skype, and special monitors. In addition, they are developing new face-recognition software that can monitor subtle changes in expression to help Hawking communicate more efficiently.
Low is expected to share his findings at a conference next month where it's anticipated that Hawking might demonstrate the iBrain device for those in attendance.