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"Letter Carrier" -- The Discovery Files

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Mayo Clinic neuroscientists have demonstrated how brain waves can be used to type alphanumerical characters on a computer screen. By merely focusing on the 'q' in a matrix of letters, for example, that 'q' appears on the monitor.

Credit: NSF/Karson Productions

Audio Transcript:

Project: "Pro-ject."

I'm Bob Karson with the discovery files -- new advances in science and engineering from the National Science Foundation.

Neuroscientists from the Mayo Clinic and the University of North Florida have developed a mind machine interface that may help some 2 million people in the U.S. who need assistive devices to communicate -- "mind/machine" -- as in, "I'm thinking of a letter -- oh, there it is on the screen."

Science has had some limited success doing this using electrodes placed on the head, outside the skull. In the new study, the team enlisted epilepsy patients who already had electrodes implanted directly on the surface of the brain (for the purpose of monitoring brainwaves to help control seizures). Since the electrodes were closer to the brain, the researchers believed they would get much clearer and more specific signals.

In the study, patients sat in front of a computer screen looking at a 6-by-6 matrix of letters. At first, each patient was asked to focus on just one specific letter at a time, or on one flashing letter. Using special software the team developed, the computer calibrated the system to the patient's own unique brain wave pattern for each letter.

Now it was time for the volunteers to project a letter on the screen. As the patient focused his mind on a letter, the computer interpreted the incoming signal, and displayed the desired letter nearly 100 percent of the time. This new method may prove to be a faster way to operate prosthetic limbs, or other brain communication devices.

Yeah -- I'd like to project a vowel.

"The Discovery Files"covers projects funded by the government's National Science Foundation. Federally sponsored research -- brought to you, by you! Learn more at or on our podcast.

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