29 March 2011

Patient plays music just by thinking

Colchester Campus

Scientists at the University of Essex have been involved in a ground-breaking experiment where a paralysed woman played music just by thinking about it.

Communicating with the outside world can be a virtual impossibility for someone who is paralysed and unable to speak. This trial now offers real hope to people trapped by their severe disability.

The woman who took part in the trial had been left paralysed, only able to make eye, facial and slight head movements after suffering a stroke. But during the trial she was making music just by thinking about it.

“She was loving taking part in the research,” remembered Dr Palani Ramaswamy, of the University’s School of Computer Science and Electronic Engineering. “She later said the experiment made her feel back in control again for the first time since her stroke.”

The trial, a joint project between Dr Ramaswamy and computer-music specialist Eduardo Miranda of the University of Plymouth, involved using brainwaves to operate a computerised music system. Specifically designed for people who are unable to speak and are paralysed – known as locked-in syndrome – the aim is to process brain waves to give them more control in communicating with the outside world.

Using electroencephalography (EEG), the patient wore a cap with electrodes which picked up different patterns in the brainwaves depending on what she was looking at on a screen – in this case objects flickering at different frequencies. This “frequency-following effect” was then adapted using control mechanisms so the different frequencies related to different musical instruments which the patient operated with her eyes.

“But what made this trial so innovative,” explained Dr Ramaswamy, “was that the intensity of how she was looking at the screen in terms of concentration offered even more control and, in this case, more notes for each instrument.”

After a couple of hours of the trial the patient was able to play a mini orchestra solo, just by brainpower alone. Until now, experiments of this kind had only been carried out in laboratories in the UK. This is the first time a trial had being held with the help of someone with a severe disability.

The findings of this study are published online in the journal Music and Medicine and Dr Ramaswamy is now hoping the trial’s success will attract funding to extend his research even further.


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