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As the participant imagined writing a letter, sensors implanted in his brain picked up on patterns of electrical activity, which an algorithm interpreted to trace the path of his imaginary pen. Credit: F. Willett et al./Nature 2021.

Scientists announced Wednesday they were able to help a person with paralysis translate their imagined handwriting into text through a brain–computer interface (BCI) that was faster than other types of assistive communication.

Why it matters: While the interface was only tested in one person and is a proof-of-concept finding, some experts say it's an "important milestone" in developing the technologies needed by millions of people globally who've lost the ability to use their upper limbs or the ability to speak due to paralysis, strokes, or Lou Gehrig's disease.

Details: The team of researchers, whose trial is part of an international collaboration called BrainGate2, implanted electrodes on the surface of the brain of the participant (who is paralyzed from the neck down) to study the complex patterns of neural activity used when visualizing the task of handwriting individual letters.

  • They were able to decode the electrical activity from about 200 different neurons into a prediction of what letter the person was wanting to make, says study co-author Krishna Shenoy, a professor of engineering at Stanford University.
  • "Basically what that means is that when you're making the shape of a letter, you get a very unique pattern of electrical activity that [co-author Frank Willett's] algorithms that are based in machine learning can readily interpret," Shenoy says.

What they found: The participant was able to compose sentences and communicate at a rate of about 90 characters per minute with a 94% raw accuracy and 99% accuracy with autocorrect, according to the results published in Nature.

  • This compares with existing communication BCIs that use the brain to "point-and click" on letters at a pace of about 40 characters per minute.
  • "It's cool to finally be able to get speeds that are comparable to normal handwriting or comparable to smartphone typing in this age group," Frank Willett, who is a research scientist at Stanford, tells Axios.

What they're saying: Jennifer Collinger, associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh's Rehab Neural Engineering Lab who was not part of this study, says the findings are "exciting and interesting" for several reasons.

  • One is that from a practical communications standpoint, the new technique appears to double the current rate of assistive communications, Collinger says.
  • "But, more than that, I would not have thought to try to decode handwriting. It seems like a very challenging problem: How is that going to be better than accessing an onscreen keyboard that people have been working towards for decades? The fact they were able to achieve such a high level of performance is really, really interesting," she says.
  • "They were able to show if you use both direction information and temporal variability you can get very responsive, very accurate performance," Collinger adds.

What we're watching: "The future really is — as we learn more and more about the brain — [that] we should be able to interact with it and help overcome dysfunction as well as to understand how it normally functions," Shenoy says.

  • This is an "important milestone in the development of BCIs and machine-learning technologies that are unraveling how the human brain controls processes as complex as communication," NIH BRAIN Initiative director John Ngai said in a statement. NIH helped fund the study.

Go deeper: Watch a video on the BCI handwriting experiment from Nature Press on YouTube.

Go deeper

Updated 1 hour ago - Politics & Policy

Bipartisan police reform negotiations end without deal

Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.) with Sens. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) in the Capitol in May 2021. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Bipartisan talks on reforming police tactics and accountability, prompted by George Floyd's murder in May 2020, have ended without a compromise, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), a key negotiator, said Wednesday.

Why it matters: Lawmakers, led by Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.) and Sens. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and Booker, had been working toward a bipartisan deal for months but things fell apart due to disagreements on qualified immunity and other issues.

Federal Reserve scales back expectations for economic recovery as Delta variant weighs

Fed chair Jerome Powell during a congressional hearing last year. (Photo: Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

The Fed downgraded near-term expectations for the economy and the labor market, alongside hotter-than-expected inflation, in new estimates out on Wednesday.

Why it matters: It's the first time those closely-watched estimates reflect impact from the delta variant that's already rattled the labor market. Still, Fed chairman Jerome Powell said enough progress has been made to begin to pull back emergency-era measures that have supported the economy.

Biden speaks with Macron for first time since diplomatic crisis

President Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron have a conversation ahead of the NATO summit in Brussels, on June 14, 2021. Photo: Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

President Biden on Wednesday spoke with French President Emmanuel Macron for the first time since a diplomatic row erupted over a scrapped submarine order, per the White House.

Driving the news: Macron said that the French ambassador will return to Washington next week and will resume working with senior U.S. officials.

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