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New technology unlocks power of the brain

February 8, 2010 12:00:00 AM PST
Scientists have found a way to harness the power of the mind in ways they never thought possible. The cutting edge science could give a voice to patients who have no other way to communicate.It's a new way to unlock the power of the brain. Scientists implant tiny electrodes deep inside the brain so that people who've lost the power to speak can communicate once again. It may sound futuristic, but it's very real.

November 5, 1999 is a day the Ramsey family will never forget. Sixteen-year-old Erik Ramsey was riding in a friend's car when they smashed into another vehicle.

"It was like starting a new life over completely," said Eddie Ramsey, Erik's father. "We now know that he had another injury, which was a blow to the back of the head."

The blow caused the arteries in Erik's brainstem to collapse and clot. The stroke left him unable to move and unable to speak. Erik was locked inside his own body.

"Locked in means that people are alert, they're intelligent, they know what's going on, but they can't move, they can't communicate," said neuroscientist Dr. Philip Kennedy.

Some describe it as being buried alive, but Kennedy is finding a way to free those people.

"Basically we're trying to develop a communication between the brain and machines," said Kennedy.

The neuroscientist created an electrode, three hair-thin, coiled cables of gold and teflon inside a glass cone. The tiny device was implanted in Erik's brain.

"The implant is a full craniotomy, where we make an opening in his skull so we can expose the brain," said Kennedy.

It's inserted into the area that controls speech and attaches to neurons.

"The neurons send their messages down to the brainstem and then out to the articulators -- the lips, tongue, jaw -- but Erik has a [brain stem] stroke, so it's cut off. So we're trying to bypass the break, go all the way around and produce his speech," Kennedy said.

A computer asks Erik to make a vowel sound. As Eric thinks about puckering his mouth to make an "o", or stretching it to make an "e", neurons in his brain fire and move the cursor. A synthesizer translates those thoughts into sound.

"The goal is to have about a hundred short and useful words so he can carry on a conversation, so we're about halfway there," said Kennedy.

According to the National Institutes of Health, there may be as many as 50,000 "locked-in patients" in the United States.

The condition wasn't discovered until the 1970s. Experts say technology like this may be able to help those patients communicate as well.

Based on this technology, the U.S. Army has been awarded a $4 million contract to develop "thought helmets", so that the troops can communicate by thought.