In a pioneering development that marks a significant leap in neuroscience, a paralyzed woman has regained her ability to communicate, thanks to a groundbreaking technology developed by researchers at the University of California San Francisco’s Department of Neurological Surgery. The technique involves a small panel of electrodes implanted onto the patient’s brain and a digital avatar, making it the first instance where brain signals have been used to capture and communicate both speech and facial expressions through a digital avatar that speaks in the patient’s own voice.
The remarkable breakthrough was led by Kaylo Littlejohn, a fourth-year doctoral student at the University, and was detailed in a paper published in the journal Nature. The patient, a 47-year-old woman named Ann, who had been unable to speak for 18 years due to a brainstem stroke, agreed to have the credit card-sized set of 253 electrodes surgically implanted onto the surface of her brain, over an area critical for speech. The stroke had previously prevented the signals from moving her tongue, jaw, larynx, and face to create speech and facial expressions, but this new technology has now opened up the possibility for fluid conversation, providing a beacon of hope for those with similar conditions.
Groundbreaking Tech Allows Paralyzed Woman to Speak Again
In an unprecedented scientific breakthrough, a paralyzed woman has regained her ability to speak, thanks to a digital avatar and a small grid of electrodes implanted onto her brain. This pioneering work was carried out by researchers from the University of California San Francisco’s Department of Neurological Surgery.
Capturing Speech and Expressions from Brain Signals
This innovative intervention marks the first time that speech and facial expressions have been captured from brain signals and communicated by an avatar using the patient’s own voice. The pioneering work is detailed in a paper published in the journal Nature, with Kaylo Littlejohn, a fourth-year doctoral student at the university, serving as a lead author.
Francis Willett, a neuroscientist at Stanford University in California who worked on a similar project, said during a press conference, "It is now possible to imagine a future where we can restore fluid conversation to someone with paralysis, enabling them to freely say whatever they want to say with an accuracy high enough to be understood reliably."
The Patient’s Journey to Regaining Speech
The patient, a 47-year-old woman named Ann, became unable to speak after experiencing a brainstem stroke 18 years ago. She agreed to have a paper-thin, credit card-sized panel of 253 electrodes surgically implanted onto her brain over an area critical for speech. Ann then worked with Littlejohn’s team to train an AI-powered system to recognize her brain’s unique signals for speech. The system was trained using a 1,024-word conversational vocabulary with Ann’s repeated phrases.
Once the system was trained, an avatar conveyed Ann’s messages using her own voice—reconstructed from a video from her wedding years ago. This was the first time in nearly two decades that Ann had spoken to her husband in her own voice.
The Emotional Impact
Kaylo Littlejohn was present when Ann first used the system to communicate with her husband. He described the moment as "very heart-warming and encouraging." For Ann, it was an emotional experience to hear her own voice again.
Dr. Edward Chang, chair of neurosurgery at the university, aims to develop a system approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for use by similar patients on a continuous basis. "Our goal is to restore a full, embodied way of communicating, which is really the most natural way for us to talk with others," Chang said in a news release about the study.
This groundbreaking project showcases the potential of technology and advanced neurology to restore essential communication abilities to those with severe paralysis. It’s not just a scientific breakthrough, but a beacon of hope for many patients and their families. The journey to commercialize the technology may be challenging, but the potential benefits are enormous. It’s an exciting time for neuroscience and technology, and we look forward to seeing how this project develops.