A real thinking cap

  • Article by: DAVID EWING DUNCAN , New York Times
  • Updated: April 7, 2012 - 10:34 PM

Called the iBrain, a simple-looking contraption is part of an experiment that aims to allow Hawking -- paralyzed by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's disease -- to communicate by thinking.

Professor Stephen Hawking, poses for photographs in his office at The Centre for Mathematical Sciences in Cambridge, in central England, 03 September 2007. Professor Hawking's new book, "George and the Secrets of the Universe" (Georges et les secrets de l'Univers) is his first children's book and aims to explain some of his theories on space and black holes to a younger generation. Written with his daughter Lucy and Christophe Galfard, a doctor of physics, the book is an adventure story that sees the hero learn about how the universe works in a fun and entertaining way. AFP PHOTO/Leon Neal

Photo: Leon Neal, Dml - Afp/getty Images

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LA JOLLA, CALIF. - Already surrounded by machines that allow him, painstakingly, to communicate, the physicist Stephen Hawking last summer donned what looked like a rakish black headband that held a feather-light device the size of a small matchbox.

Called the iBrain, this simple-looking contraption is part of an experiment that aims to allow Hawking -- paralyzed by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's disease -- to communicate by thinking.

The iBrain is part of a new generation of portable neural devices and algorithms intended to monitor and diagnose such conditions as sleep apnea, depression and autism. Invented by a team led by Philip Low, 32, a neuroscientist who is chief executive of NeuroVigil, based in San Diego, the iBrain is gaining attention as a possible alternative to expensive sleep labs.

"The iBrain can collect data in real time in a person's own bed," Low said.

The device uses a single channel to pick up waves of electrical brain signals, which change with different activities and thoughts, or with the pathologies that accompany brain disorders. But the raw waves are hard to read because they must pass through the many folds of the brain and then the skull, so they are interpreted with an algorithm that Low developed for his Ph.D., earned in 2007 at the University of California, San Diego.

About the Hawking experiment, he said, "The idea is to see if Stephen can use his mind to create a consistent and repeatable pattern that a computer can translate into, say, a word or letter or a command."

The researchers traveled to Hawking's offices in Cambridge, England, and asked him "to imagine that he was scrunching his right hand into a ball," Low said. "He can't actually move his hand, but the motor cortex in his brain can still issue the command and generate electrical waves."

The algorithm was able to discern Hawking's thoughts as signals. "We wanted to see if there was any change in the signal," Low said. "And in fact, we did see a change in the signal."

He plans to repeat the study in large populations of patients with ALS and other neurodegenerative diseases.

It comes as Hawking's ability to communicate diminishes. The physicist, 70, now needs several minutes to generate a simple message. He uses a pair of infrared glasses that picks up twitches in his cheek.

"Dr. Low and his company have done some outstanding work," Hawking said. "I wish to assist in research, encourage investment in this area, and, most importantly, to offer some future hope to people diagnosed with ALS and other neurodegenerative conditions."

Much work remains, however, including the integration of Hawking's brain waves with the devices that allow him to communicate. "Wouldn't it be wonderful," Low said, "to have a mind like Stephen Hawking's be able to communicate even a little bit better?"

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