By Robert Bazell Chief science and health correspondent
NBC News
updated 12/6/2004 7:31:50 PM ET 2004-12-07T00:31:50

It looks like a simple video game, but look closer and you can see that Scott Hamel is moving colored squares on the screen without touching any controls. He's not even moving at all. It's his brain waves that control the computer cursor.

"The first time I realized I was controlling it was kind of mind blowing!" says Hamel. "The technology is science fiction!"

Hamel lost the use of his legs in an auto accident 27 years ago, but with his arms he is still quite active — even driving drag race cars.

He volunteers for the brain wave project because he knows it could help people who are totally paralyzed — they could communicate and perform all sorts of complex tasks with this technology.

"If you can move a cursor in several dimensions and you can select items, then you can have the panoply, the whole universe of computer programs available to you," says Dr. Jonathan Wolpaw, who heads the project at the New York State Department of Health's Wadsworth Center in Albany.

"Studies show that if paralyzed people can communicate, they can have lives that are worthwhile and meaningful and enjoyable, both for them and their family members," says Dr. Wolpaw.

PNAS
The colored lines show the speed at which participants moved cursors using their brain waves (blue is slowest; red is fastest).
Brain waves are the very weak electrical signals given off by the firing of millions of nerve cells in the brain. They can be measured by wires in a cap placed on the outside of the head.

The program that translates a person's waves into computer movement takes some practice.

"The person learns to talk to the computer and the computer learns to listen to him," says Dr. Wolpaw.

How difficult is it?

A novice can get connected in a few minutes and at least in some cases score some successes with the simplest task on the first few tries.

But the volunteers, like Hamel, who practice extensively, can make it work quickly and accurately.

"The more independent you can be, the more successful you can be," says Hamel. "To be able to do your own thing, that gives you more self confidence."

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