“Pancho” Speaks – Without Speaking

By Shlomo Maital     

New York Times

   From The New York Times, July 14:  by Pam Belluck:   

   “He has not been able to speak since 2003, when he was paralyzed at age 20 by a severe stroke after a terrible car crash.  Now, in a scientific milestone, researchers have tapped into the speech areas of his brain — allowing him to produce comprehensible words and sentences simply by trying to say them. When the man, known by his nickname, Pancho, tries to speak, electrodes implanted in his brain transmit signals to a computer that displays his intended words on the screen.    His first recognizable sentence, researchers said, was, “My family is outside.”

   “The achievement, published on Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine, could eventually help many patients with conditions that steal their ability to talk.  “This is farther than we’ve ever imagined we could go,” said Melanie Fried-Oken, a professor of neurology and pediatrics at Oregon Health & Science University, who was not involved in the project.

    “Three years ago, when Pancho, now 38, agreed to work with neuroscience researchers, they were unsure if his brain had even retained the mechanisms for speech.   “That part of his brain might have been dormant, and we just didn’t know if it would ever really wake up in order for him to speak again,” said Dr. Edward Chang, chairman of neurological surgery at University of California, San Francisco, who led the research.

      “The team implanted a rectangular sheet of 128 electrodes, designed to detect signals from speech-related sensory and motor processes linked to the mouth, lips, jaw, tongue and larynx. In 50 sessions over 81 weeks, they connected the implant to a computer by a cable attached to a port in Pancho’s head, and asked him to try to say words from a list of 50 common ones he helped suggest, including “hungry,” “music” and “computer.”    As he did, electrodes transmitted signals through a form of artificial intelligence that tried to recognize the intended words.”

. . . . . .

   There are perhaps 100,000 people in the US alone who suffer long-term disability related to traumatic brain injury, including inability to speak.  Perhaps one day, this amazing breakthrough will restore their ability to communicate. 

   Special congratulations to the creativity and audacity of Dr. Edward Chang, who led the research.