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Mind Power

Friday, March 27, 2009

Reporter: Liz Hayes

Producer: Phil Goyen

Every now and then, you see something that really does take your breath away. A kind of miracle.

And this is one of them. Just try to imagine a computer that can read your mind. It's not some wild fantasy, Liz Hayes has tested it and, to her astonishment, it works.

The computer knew exactly what Liz was thinking. But that's just the beginning.

This new technology can mean a whole new life for those suffering from "locked in" syndrome, people trapped in their own bodies, who can't move or say a word.

Liz has seen them actually write emails, send texts, and even speak, using nothing but their thoughts.

For more information on BCI go to:


For more information about ‘Braingate’ go to:

For more informationa bout Andy Schwartz’s research go to:

For a copy of Marie Therese’s album head to your local record store and ask for:
‘Waltzing with My Eyes’
By Marie-Therese Khan
Publisher: Hardrush Records

Full transcript:

LIZ HAYES: Every now and then you see something that really takes your breath away, a kind of miracle. And this is one of them. Just try to imagine a computer that can read your mind. It's not some wild fantasy, I've tested it. And to my astonishment, it works. The computer knew exactly what I was thinking. But that's just the beginning. This new technology can mean a whole new life for those suffering from locked-in syndrome, people trapped in their own bodies, who can't move or say a word. I have seen them actually write emails, send texts and even speak, using nothing but their thoughts. STORY -

LIZ HAYES: Take a listen to this. What you're hearing is the human brain talking.

DR JOHN DONOGHUE: That crackling is the sound of the neuron popping.

LIZ HAYES: Brain waves communicating with a computer, telling it what to do next.

DR JOHN DONOGHUE: Basically we connect the brain to the computer and you can operate a computer only using your thoughts.

LIZ HAYES: It's 21st century mind-reading - medical science that is giving a voice to those who cannot speak...


LIZ HAYES: ..and even movement to lifeless limbs. As I was about to discover, in this new age of neurotechnology almost anything is possible. That is amazing. For people like Marie-Therese Khan, this new science could change their world. At 35, Marie-Therese had just given birth to her third son. Only months later she suffered a massive stroke. Even though her intelligence and memory remain she can only communicate through blinking. Every word must be painstakingly spelled out letter by letter. Marie-Therese, can you describe what it's like to be locked in?

LUKE PURTON TRANSLATES: 1,2,3,4,5 - T, V. 1,2,3 A,E, 1,2,3,4, R - very. 1,B,C,D,F...V,W,X,Y. Annoying, she says it's frustrating and sometimes annoying.

LIZ HAYES: That's an understatement. Marie-Therese's eldest son, Luke, was six when his mum suffered her stroke. Luke, I think you've said that you've tried to understand what it must be like for your mum.

LUKE PURTON: A lot of times before I go to sleep I think, "This is what mum goes through," and she doesn't get up and you do kind of imagine yourself in that position and would you smile? She smiles and laughs more than I do.

LIZ HAYES: What would it mean to your life to be given back your voice?

LUKE PURTON TRANSLATES: A,E, 1,2,3,4,5 - T,V,W,Y. Everything, that's it.

LIZ HAYES: But there is some good news, hope for Marie-Therese and the thousands of people like her - a chance of restoring her independence, releasing her from her locked-in state, here in America, half a world away from Dubbo, scientists are making some extraordinary discoveries. They've developed technology that allows computers to read minds and for those who've had to live in silence this technology is proving to be simply astounding. People like Scott Mackler. Though completely immobilised and unable to speak, Scott has gained the ability to communicate through thought. Not only that, incredibly, he's resumed his job as a neuroscientist at Pennsylvania University. How has the ability to communicate independently changed your life?

SCOTT MACKLER COMPUTER GENERATED VOICE: I am independently organising my research. If I couldn't work how could I survive, we are in the enviable position of loving our jobs.

LIZ HAYES: It's called BCI - brain computer interface technology. In short, a cap that records brain signals. Scott can spell out words just by thinking of them.


LIZ HAYES: The computer gives them a voice.

LYNN SNYDER-MACKLER: It gave him his independence back. He was getting so frustrated So him having his independence back, especially for his work, it made him happy again.

LIZ HAYES: What drives you Scott?


LYNN SNYDER-MACKLER: In that order? Yes.

LIZ HAYES: Good answer. Scott was once a fitness fanatic who loved running marathons. A family man, married to Lynn, with two sons.

SCOTT MACKLER VIDEO FOOTAGE: Here I am with my beautiful wife on Mothers Day.

LIZ HAYES: Nine years ago Scott was struck down by Lou Gehrig's Disease, a devastating illness that attacks the central nervous system.

SCOTT MACKLER VIDEO FOOTAGE: And I love you very much and I'll see you.

LIZ HAYES: Within months, Scott was totally locked-in, his sharp mind trapped inside a paralysed body...

LYNN SNYDER-MACKLER: Are you excited about this next couple of days?

LIZ HAYES: ..unable to speak until this remarkable technology came along. It seems miraculous, so how does it work and will it work for me? I'm going to find out if a computer can read my mind. Tiny sensors inside the cap that I'm wearing will, hopefully, enable the computer to recognise my thoughts. I intend to spell out a word that only I know, the word 'miracle'. I'm nervous for the computer. Letters flash up on the screen. I concentrate on the letter I want. The computer is supposed to read the electrical signals coming from my brain, telling it which letter I'm choosing. And, amazingly, it does. Fabulous. That's something, isn't it? That is a miracle. My heart starts beating when it's coming up and its like yes, yes, yes! That's incredible.

PROFESSOR JOHN WALPOW: One of the big issues is it can restore a measure of independence.

LIZ HAYES: Professor John Walpow has been developing this mind-reading technology for nearly 20 years. Do you recall the first time you saw your technology working for someone?

PROFESSOR JOHN WALPOW: It was neat getting the first email from our patient in Philadelphia, to say, "Boy he really wrote this," you know. "He did this, he wrote this, it actually worked." You know, we finally helped somebody after all this work. Yeah, that was neat.

LIZ HAYES: That patient was Scott Mackler, who, five years on, has embraced his new world of communication. The BCI technology offers so much hope but what more would you like it to offer to people who are locked-in?

SCOTT MACKLER COMPUTER GENERATED VOICE: The ability to control the mouse and move prosthetic limbs.

LIZ HAYES: And that's already happening. In Pittsburgh, Professor Andy Schwartz has implanted microchips into the brains of monkeys to interpret their brain signals. Using that information, a computer makes a robotic arm do what the monkey wants.

SCIENTIST: In this case, we hold a marshmallow out, the monkey directs its robot arm, closes the grip around the marshmallow and brings it to its face so that it can eat.

LIZ HAYES: And you're basically making it happen by thinking about it?


LIZ HAYES: In Providence, Rhode Island, scientists are taking it one step further, placing the implants into human brains. Professor John Donoghue has developed what's called 'Braingate'. A sensor smaller than a contact lens is placed on part of the brain that is responsible for movement. It is decoding the language of the brain?

DR JOHN DONOGHUE: That's exactly what we call it, decoding the brain.

LIZ HAYES: The sensor records electrical signals from the brain and a computer puts them into action. And soon the whole system will become a whole lot smaller.

DR JOHN DONOGHUE: Here's a prototype of a device that's being developed where it has the same kind of tiny sensor that's in the brain and then the signals are fed up to this little wafer of electronics that goes under the skin.

LIZ HAYES: It's not unlike a cochlear implant?

DR JOHN DONOGHUE: It's very much like a cochlear implant.

LIZ HAYES: Already, Braingate has enabled users to control a computer mouse, move a wheelchair and even a robotic hand - again, just by thinking about it.

DR JOHN DONOGHUE: I think the next step, and something we're actually working on, is to re-create a physical nervous system, a bridge from the brain back to the body.

LIZ HAYES: For Marie-Therese Kahn such technology could finally re-open her world.

LUKE PURTON: What the release of this CD means to Mum and our family, words will never be able to describe.

LIZ HAYES: Not that being locked-in for 14 years has held her back. Tonight, she's releasing a CD of music based on her poetry all of which she's had to communicate through blinking.

LUKE PURTON: I don't think I'd have the understanding of some of life's more perplexing matters than I do having been around someone like Mum.

LIZ HAYES: Because that's one of the first things most people think, "If I was like that life wouldn't be worth living."

LUKE PURTON: Absolutely, she's gone completely against that. She's made life worth living more than anyone I can think of. 4,5,T. H. Thank you.

LIZ HAYES: When this latest, incredible technology is fully developed, you can only imagine what else Marie-Therese could achieve.

DR JOHN DONOGHUE: The fantasy is that one day you're playing basketball and the person with you said, "Oh, two years ago I had this terrible car crash, spinal cord injury, but now I'm fine, I'm able to play basketball."

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