Can Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis Patients Speak Again With New Technology?

The Importance of Speech

The ability to speak gives individuals not only the opportunity to communicate with one another, it provides an outlet for expression, creativity, and connectedness. Unfortunately, that means when the voice is lost, the social pleasures of life often go with it.

Some rare diseases can result in the loss of speech. This lack of ability to communicate can significantly affect the quality of life of patients. Stephen Hawking is one of the many who dealt with this loss. The British physicist was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) when he was only 21 years old. ALS is a rare neurological disease which causes progressive muscle weakness in addition to a multitude of other symptoms such as an impaired ability to speak.

Hawking eventually had to use a hand-held clicker to communicate and even later on, when he became unable to use his hands, he used a switch placed on his cheek that was connected to his glasses. With this switch he was able to choose which words were vocalized by a voice synthesizer.

Research at Columbia University

A recent study conducted at Columbia University examined if it were possible to translate someones brain waves into audible speech. This would allow people who are unable to speak the opportunity to communicate more easily. The ultimate dream is to create a device which would automatically translate thoughts into speech. While we haven’t quite gotten that far in terms of technology, scientists at Columbia were successfully able to verbalize brain waves.

This study included five epilepsy patients. They were hooked up to a neural monitoring device and then played a recording of someone else talking. The brain waves of these individuals were captured and transmitted into a vocoder. A vocoder is an artificial intelligence algorithm that works to synthesize speech. After going through the vocoder, the patients brain waves were converted into comprehensible speech that mimicked the speech they had heard.

Next, the researchers had to make sure this robotic speech could be understood by someone else. If not, there wasn’t a point to translating it. Eleven volunteers listened to the speech. They were able to understand the words 75% of the time. This is more successful than any other similar experiment conducted so far.

You can listen to these recordings yourself here. You can also read the full study which was published in Scientific Reports here.

Future Research

In the future, Columbia researchers want to try this experiment with more complex phrases. The study described above only used simple sentences and phrases such as counting from one to nine. But translating thoughts into speech is truly the goal that is paramount for this team.

There’s truly no telling where we could be in a few years thanks to dedicated researchers and the ever-advancing and overlapping fields of science and technology.

You can read more about this study here.


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