While he was in there, Mehta carefully placed a flat array of microelectrodes on the left side of the brain’s surface, over areas involved in both listening to and formulating speech. By eavesdropping on the electrical impulses that crackle through the gray matter when a person hears in the “mind’s ear” what words he intends to articulate (often so quickly it’s barely conscious), then transmitting those signals wirelessly to a computer that decodes them, the electrodes and the rest of the system hold the promise of being the first “brain-computer interface” to go beyond movement and sensation.
If all goes well, it will conquer the field’s Everest: developing a brain-computer interface that could enable people with a spinal cord injury, locked-in syndrome, ALS, or other paralyzing condition to talk again.
“We think we’re getting enough of an understanding of the brain signals that encode silent speech that we could soon make something practical,” said Brian Pasley of the University of California, Berkeley. “Even something modest could be meaningful to patients. I’m convinced it’s possible.”
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