Locked in but not locked out

This week’s New Yorker carries a fascinating story, one that is unfortunately not online, but would surely spread like crazy if it was. It tells the sad tale of people who are “locked in,” that is having lost complete communication with their muscles, and in turn the outside world. These people are not in comas, rather they have all of their thoughts, but no way to communicate them.

Dr. Niels Birbaumer, a neuroscientist from the University of Tubingen works with these patients using a system some call a Brain-Computer Interface (BCI), which is a sort of pong game hooked up to a person’s EEG (brain waves). In a miraculous extension of the brain’s capacity to learn, many of Birbaumer’s subjects have successfully used the system to spell words, reestablishing the connection between the brain and the world it resides in.

There is surprisingly little literature about Birbaumer’s work on the web (one measly Nature abstract), but the importance of his work deserves some serious attention. It is an inspiring story for those academics stuck in their labs, working on animals or otherwise, showing that research can have a real impact on the world.

To say the least, it’s worth the $4.

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