A California native who wishes to be identified by his nickname, “Pancho”, is talking again after losing his speech in 2003 at the age of 20 in a terrible car crash that almost cost him his life. Through regenerative medicine, researchers have tapped into the speech areas of his brain allowing him to produce words and sentences simply by him trying to say them. These brain signals are recognized by electrodes that transmit messages to a computer which then displays Pancho’s intended words on a screen. The advance is farther than many ever imagined and opens the door to new discoveries that can be used to treat other brain injuries or conditions in which patients have insufficient muscle control to speak such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (A.L.S.) and cerebral palsy.
My definition of regenerative medicine includes any intervention that restores the body to normal whether injured by trauma, damaged by disease, or worn by time. This includes any process that rehabilitates the body to its original function and is not limited to the use of stem cells. Over the past several decades, as we have explored the frontiers of what this new medicine can be. Discoveries such as tissue regeneration, organ transplant, and advanced stem cell research have come to light. Neuroprosthesis, the term scientists have derived for Pancho’s new treatment, is proving to be one of the most exciting developments in this field.
A team at the University of California San Francisco, led by Dr. Eddie Chang, who managed the discovery, explained the process of implantation in depth in a report published to The New England Journal of Medicine. The process involves the implantation of a subdural, high-density, multi-electrode array over the area of the sensorimotor cortex that controls speech in a person who has lost the ability to articulate speech caused by a brain-stem stroke. Over the course of forty-eight sessions, researchers record the participant’s cortical activity while they attempt to say individual words from a vocabulary set of fifty words. By detecting patterns in the recorded cortical activity, they use deep-learning algorithms to create computational models for the detection and classification of words. These computational models are then applied to decode full sentences as the participant attempts to say them.There are obstacles to overcome, however, as researchers have pointed out the system’s high error rate, its limited vocabulary, and the amount of time required to train the system to recognize the imagined words. The speech neuroprosthesis used in this study is also an experimental device and can not yet be used by Pancho daily. Despite these setbacks, the neuroprosthesis has caught the attention of many academic scientists as well as technology companies that hope to commercialize it, including Elon Musk’s Neuralink, Kernel, and Facebook Inc.
The University of San Francisco is not the only team who have been able to translate brain signals to computer text. Two months prior to the release of their research, Stanford officials reported that they had developed and successfully demonstrated a system that enabled a paralyzed man to transcribe ninety characters a minute with ninety-four percent accuracy. The system uses electrodes implanted within the brain rather than on the surface and was described in a paper published in May in the journal Nature.
As advances continue to be made, Pancho is still working with researchers at the University of California San Francisco to further their studies. Their current goal is to begin expanding the number of words that can be used for the participant’s vocabulary. Pancho seems to enjoy the sessions with researchers and in several interviews has said he is hopeful about the progress they will make. He claims to take pride in his involvement and often giggles and trembles with delight when the computer displays his words correctly
Hope is on the horizon for more advances in regenerative medicine with this instance being just one example of how technology can alter lives for the better. New approaches to healing, such as speech neuroprosthesis, open the door for healthcare innovation to advance beyond just disease management. With awareness and support, individuals like Pancho can regain the life they never should have lost in the first place. We must open our eyes to these cutting edge techniques and support researchers in altering the landscape of healthcare for a better future and a brighter tomorrow.