Brain Surgery Helps a Mute Man Speak

A surgical procedure performed by a team from Boston University, Massachusetts led by Professor Frank Guenther, has enabled a mute man to speak again. An electrode implanted in the patient’s brain made it possible for the patient to produce vowels by thinking them, using a speech synthesizer. In the future, this breakthrough may help patients with similar injuries produce entire sentences, using signals from their brains.
Professor Frank Guenther (Credit: D. Kamerman) 
Professor Frank Guenther
(Credit: D. Kamerman)

A locked-in syndrome is usually caused by extensive bleeding into the pons area of the brain stem as a result of a trauma. This bleeding causes the patient to be fully paralysed while his mind and cognitive abilities remain virtually intact. Scientists from the Boston University in Massachusetts have recently decided to help such a patient regain the ability to communicate with the outside world.

First, the researchers had to determine whether the patient’s brain was producing the same signals to elicit speech as a normal person. They scanned the patient’s brain using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and asked him to attempt to produce specific vowels. They compared the brain scan results to those of healthy subjects and determined that they were the same.

The next step in the treatment was to implant an electrode directly into the speech production areas of the patient’s brain. This electrode is a unique device which was designed by neuroscientist Philip Kennedy of the Georgia based company Neural Signals, and is left inside the brain for a substantial amount of time, allowing further research.
Decoding of vowel sounds from neural signals collected from the electrode (Credit: CNS Speech Lab)  
Decoding of vowel sounds from
neural signals collected from the
electrode (Credit: CNS Speech Lab)

This new electrode is considered unique when compared to existing brain-computer interfaces. Most of these devices are fixed to the skull, but not to a specific part of the brain, which makes it virtually impossible to record from a specific group of neurons in a stable fashion for a long time. In contrast, the electrode used by Guenther’s team contained neurotrophic factors, which cause neurons from the surrounding tissue to grow into and around the electrode. This growth stabilizes the electrode and allows the recordings to be consistent and also allows for the long-term implantation in the brain.

After implanting the electrode, the team began decoding the signals emitted from the man’s brain, using a computer model they’ve been developing for the past 15 years. So far, the model has been able to discern three vowels as the patient was thinking them, producing them as quickly as in normal speech. Guenther says that his long-term goal is to have the patient produce words directly within five years.

TFOT has recently covered the voiceless phone call technology, developed by Ambient Corporation, which can be used by the disabled to control wheelchairs and other means of transportation. Another related story introduced COGAIN, a technology developed in Leicester, UK, which was designed for people with severe motor disabilities, allowing them to play 3D computer games using only their eyes.
 
For more information on the speech restoring surgical procedure please visit the Professor Guethner’s laboratory site.
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About the author

Anni Shaer Levitt

Anni has a B.Sc. in Psychology and Biology from the Hebrew University and is currently working on her M.Sc in Neurobiology. Her thesis will focus on face perception and processing.

View all articles by Anni Shaer Levitt