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Connecting brains to computers could circumvent disabilities

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  • Connecting brains to computers could circumvent disabilities

    Connecting brains to computers could circumvent disabilities
    Christen Brownlee

    At the University of Tübingen in Germany, neurobiologist Andrea Kübler works with a 49-year-old patient whom she identifies only as H.S. Like many of Kübler's patients, H.S. suffers from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a degenerative disease that slowly breaks down the nerve cells necessary for motion. The disease has paralyzed H.S., stripping him of the motor functions that most people take for granted: sitting up, eating, and even breathing.

    H.S. was diagnosed with ALS 14 years ago, and a permanent ventilator has done his breathing for him since 1993. From then until recently, H.S. could converse with Kübler and his caregivers only by blinking his eyes.

    Many people paralyzed by a variety of causes-strokes, tumors, or traumatic brain injuries, to name a few examples-communicate rather well by using their remaining, although impoverished, muscle power. For example, French editor Jean-Dominique Bauby, who was paralyzed by a stroke, dictated a 132-page novel (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, 1997, Knopf) just by blinking his left eye. Similarly, decades after physicist Stephen Hawking was paralyzed by ALS, he continues to give world-renowned lectures by feeding words into a computer program with a flick of his finger.

    Eventually, H.S.'s paralysis might prevent him from