BrainControl Helping Completely Paralyzed Patients Communicate With Doctors and Family


Emotiv Systems, a Silicon Valley neuroscience startup, is testing the limits of its brainwave-monitoring headset in a collaborative project it is running with Sienna-based software developer called BrainControl. Emotiv markets a multi-channel, wireless headset that uses an ECG to monitor brain activity and pushes results to a smartphone app that purports to present easy to understand insights about the way we think and learn. The device was funded on Kickstarter with a $1.6 million campaign that launched in August 2013 and raises 16-times its initial goal.

Now, BrainControl is using the headset on completely paralyzed patients, unable to communicate or even open their eyelids on their own, to help them use their thoughts to communicate with doctors and their families for the first time in years.

BrainControl has created a software platform that is trained to read a single command from patients, the thought “push.”

"I usually ask people to imagine pushing an object with their mind. Once we have captured the thought "push", the next stage is to train the subject to get control of the cursor." – Pasquale Fedele, BrainControl machine-learning engineer.

With this command, patients are able to “push” a cursor across a tablet, highlighting responses to questions posed by doctors and family members. Question responses are limited to Yes, No, and I don’t know, and patients can select their response by thinking push to move the cursor from Yes to No, and then again from No to I don’t know. 

The system is new, but is showing positive results thus far. A man with advanced ALS used the system to tell his family that even though he cannot open his eyelids, when others open them for him he is able to see. He was also able to tell his doctors that he is experiencing dental pain. He was also able to correctly identify his five-year old grandson’s name. Thus far 21 people with tetraplegia, paralysis of all four limbs and torso, have tested BrainControl through Emotiv System’s headset, with largely positive results.

"BrainControl gives disabled people the power to control objects with their thoughts. These thoughts are acquired by an EEG headset, interpreted by a computer and can be used to control just about anything from a communicator to home automation or robotics.” – Jarred Fath, CEO of BrainControl.

While Fath’s vision of a future where paralyzed patient’s control robots with the company’s solution, even a modest improvement in communication could go a long way. Globally, 3.7 million patients suffer from forms of paralysis that that severely preclude communication. Of those, most are able to use eye movements to communicate, but for those unable to open their eyelids and move their eyes, communication is completely limited, resulting in an existence on par with being consciously trapped within their own bodies. By repurposing a Kickstarter funded consumer headset, and optimizing it with software introduced through an API, BrainControl looks as though it may go  to help a small population of people suffering a unimaginably difficult life.

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