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Neurosurgeon Eddie Chang performing brain surgery. Photo: Barbara Ries/UCSF

Researchers in California announced Wednesday that they have successfully accessed the brain waves of a man unable to speak due to severe paralysis and transformed his thoughts into sentences.

Why it matters: This is the first known "successful demonstration of direct decoding of full words from the brain activity of someone who is paralyzed and cannot speak," neurosurgeon Edward Chang, senior author on the study, said in a statement from the University of California, San Francisco.

"It shows strong promise to restore communication by tapping into the brain's natural speech machinery."
— Chang
  • The study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine on Wednesday, indicates that the approach researchers took could one day help thousands of people who are unable to speak if the method is developed further, according to U.C. San Francisco.

What they did: For the study, known as "BRAVO" (Brain-Computer Interface Restoration of Arm and Voice), researchers worked with a man in his late 30s whose paralysis is due to a brainstem stroke over 15 years ago that left him with limited head, neck, and limb movements. He had been communicating by using a pointer attached to a baseball cap to poke letters on a screen.

  • Chang surgically implanted electrodes into the part of the brain that controls speech. The man worked with researchers to create a 50-word vocabulary — words like "water," "family" and "good" — that Chang's team recognized from brain activity using advanced computer algorithms.
  • Researchers translated signals intended to control muscles of the vocal system for speaking words, rather than signals to move the arm or hand to enable typing.
  • Chang said in his statement that this approach, known as speech neuroprosthesis, tapped into the natural and fluid aspects of speech, promising more rapid and organic communication.

Of note: The study follows an international team of researchers announcing in May that they helped a person with paralysis translate their imagined handwriting into text through a brain–computer interface that was faster than other types of assistive communication.

What they're saying: Leigh Hochberg, a neurologist with Massachusetts General Hospital, Brown University and the Department of Veterans Affairs, who wasn't involved in Chang's study but co-wrote an editorial on it, said this speech neuroprosthesis research was part of a wave of innovative progress in the field, per the New York Times.

  • "It's now only a matter of years before there will be a clinically useful system that will allow for the restoration of communication," added Hochberg, who directs the BrainGate project, which is working on projects to help people affected by neurological disease.

Go deeper

Updated 29 mins 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.