London : An American scientist will be unveiling details of work on the brain patterns of Stephen Hawking, which he claims could help safeguard the physicist’s ability to communicate.
Prof Philip Low said he eventually hoped to allow the 70-year-old to “write” words with his brain as an alternative to his current speech system which interprets cheek muscle movements.
Low said the innovation would avert the risk of locked-in syndrome.
Intel is working on an alternative.
Hawking was diagnosed with motor neurone disease in 1963. In the 1980s he was able to use slight thumb movements to move a computer cursor to write sentences.
His condition later worsened and he had to switch to a system which detects movements in his right cheek through an infrared sensor attached to his glasses which measures changes in light.
Since the nerves in his face continue to deteriorate his rate of speech has slowed to about one word a minute prompting him to look for an alternative.
The fear is that Prof Hawking could ultimately lose the ability to communicate by body movement, leaving his brain effectively “locked in” his body.
In 2011, he allowed Prof Low to scan his brain using the iBrain device developed by the Silicon Valley-based start-up Neurovigil.
Low said he had designed computer software which could analyse the data and detect high frequency signals that had previously been thought lost because of the skull.
“An analogy would be that as you walk away from a concert hall where there’s music from a range of instruments,” the BBC quoted Low as saying.
“As you go further away you will stop hearing high frequency elements like the violin and viola, but still hear the trombone and the cello. Well, the further you are away from the brain the more you lose the high frequency patterns.
“What we have done is found them and teased them back using the algorithm so they can be used,” he said.
Prof Low said that when Prof Hawking had thought about moving his limbs this had produced a signal which could be detected once his algorithm had been applied to the EEG data.
According to him, this could act as an “on-off switch” and produce speech if a bridge was built to a similar system already used by the cheek detection system.
Low concluded by saying that further work needed to be done to see if his equipment could distinguish different types of thoughts – such as imagining moving a left hand and a right leg.