Emerging Technologies

'Neuroprosthesis' restores words to man with paralysis

Researchers work in Dr. Eddie Chang’s lab at UCSF’s Mission Bay campus on Friday, June 7, 2019, in San Francisco. Pictured are postdoctoral scholar Pengfei Sun, PhD, research scientist Joseph Makin, PhD, and postdoctoral scholar David Moses, PhD. (Photo by Noah Berger)CONSENT FORMS OBTAINED

Researchers have developed new technology to help people with paralysis. Image: Noah Berger

Robin Marks
Senior Public Information Representative, UCSF Office of Communications
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  • Researchers have successfully developed a 'speech neuroprosthesis'.
  • The technology translates signals from the brain to the vocal tract directly into words that appear on screen.
  • It's enabled a man with severe paralysis to communicate in sentences.

Researchers at UC San Francisco have successfully developed a “speech neuroprosthesis” that has enabled a man with severe paralysis to communicate in sentences, translating signals from his brain to the vocal tract directly into words that appear as text on a screen.

The achievement, which was developed in collaboration with the first participant of a clinical research trial, builds on more than a decade of effort by UCSF neurosurgeon Edward Chang, MD, to develop a technology that allows people with paralysis to communicate even if they are unable to speak on their own. The study appears July 15 in the New England Journal of Medicine.

“To our knowledge, this is the first successful demonstration of direct decoding of full words from the brain activity of someone who is paralyzed and cannot speak,” said Chang, the Joan and Sanford Weill Chair of Neurological Surgery at UCSF, Jeanne Robertson Distinguished Professor, and senior author on the study. “It shows strong promise to restore communication by tapping into the brain's natural speech machinery.”

Each year, thousands of people lose the ability to speak due to stroke, accident, or disease. With further development, the approach described in this study could one day enable these people to fully communicate.

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Image: UCSF
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Translating brain signals into speech

Previously, work in the field of communication neuroprosthetics has focused on restoring communication through spelling-based approaches to type out letters one-by-one in text. Chang’s study differs from these efforts in a critical way: his team is translating signals intended to control muscles of the vocal system for speaking words, rather than signals to move the arm or hand to enable typing. Chang said this approach taps into the natural and fluid aspects of speech and promises more rapid and organic communication.

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“With speech, we normally communicate information at a very high rate, up to 150 or 200 words per minute,” he said, noting that spelling-based approaches using typing, writing, and controlling a cursor are considerably slower and more laborious. “Going straight to words, as we’re doing here, has great advantages because it’s closer to how we normally speak.”

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