27 juli 2010

snif... a BCI

Seven months ago, a 51-year-old woman known only to the public as patient LI1 suffered a severe stroke and lost her ability to communicate with the outside world. She couldn't even blink her eyes. But now, thanks to a new technology, the woman can write long, emotional e-mails to her loved ones just by sniffing.

Like many quadriplegics, patient LI1's stroke damaged a region high up on her spinal column, paralyzing her from the neck down. But LI1's injury was so extensive that she also lost the ability to speak. Such patients are referred to as "locked-in" because they can't communicate with the outside world, even though their brain functions normally. Some can blink to answer simple yes or no questions or even string words together by picking out letters as someone recites them (as in the case of Jean-Dominique Bauby, author of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly). But this isn't an option for Patient LI1.

So neurobiologist Noam Sobel of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, turned to sniffing. He and colleagues had been studying the human sense of smell and had developed a device, which looks like the oxygen tubes patients wear in the hospital, that releases an odor when a subject sniffs forcefully. Sobel's team soon realized that the device could be configured to respond to various types of sniffing, such as sniffing harder or softer. And that meant it could have applications for locked-in patients. "We thought you could use this sniff to control anything, " Sobel says. "You could even fly a plane."

read more in Science

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