People with serious spinal injuries and neurodegenerative disorders like Lou Gehrig's disease have ways of typing, but none is particularly convenient — precisely moving one's head or eyes for minutes at a time gets old fast. A new method being tested by Stanford researchers taps directly into the brain, allowing a cursor to be controlled on a screen without moving a single muscle.
Led by electrical engineering professor Krishna Shenoy, the team studied the exact brain patterns associated with reaching out and pointing one's finger at a target. With this data in hand, the researchers equipped monkeys with brain-monitoring devices and applied a new method of interpreting the signals put out by groups of neurons. The monkeys, with their minds alone, could control cursors on screen and "touch" target buttons nearly as well as if they were doing so with their hands.
The monkeys were capable of hitting targets at a rate of about one per second for extended periods of time — meaning the system could be used to type messages at a rate equivalent to "hunt and peck" style typing, but without the fatigue of constant head or eye movements.
The team has been given Food and Drug Administration permission to begin clinical trials in humans with spinal injuries. It may take some time to arrive, but the prospect of a quick, comfortable method of typing and interacting with computers is a happy one for many.