ALS, which has later come to be known as Lou Gehrig's disease, is a disease of the neurons in the brain and spinal cord that control voluntary muscle movement. Symptoms start off relatively mild with some muscle weakness. But as the disease progresses the muscle weakness worsens. Patients become incapable of moving their arms and legs, as the muscles controlling movement waste away. In the final stages of the disease, weakening of the diaphragm and rib cage muscles typically causes respiratory failure. What’s perhaps the most devastating part of the disease is that the mind stays as healthy as ever during the progressive deterioration of the muscles. Some people with ALS are bed stricken and paralyzed for months without the ability to communicate or swallow and with difficulties breathing. At that point we might say that death is a breeze.
ASL is a special case of locked-in syndrome, a condition that became ingrained into the minds of the public in 2007 with the release of the French bio-drama The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, based on Jean-Dominique Bauby's biography of the same name. On December 8, 1995 Bauby suffered a massive stroke that left him paralyzed from the neck down. He was left with only one eye after doctors decided to sew up his right eye to prevent infection. In the months to follow he struggled to convince his lover (in the movie: his wife) and the nurses that cared for him that there was a conscious mind behind the dead body and that the flickering of the left eyelid was not erratic tics. He succeeded and authored his biography using only the left eyelid and a human translator (initially one of the nurses).
For sufferers of locked-in syndrome the success of synthetic, or artificial, telepathy would be more than a scientific breakthrough. It would add meaning to the final years of mentally healthy people who cannot move, talk or eat. Synthetic telepathy is direct communication between the brain and an external device, communication that does not require any hand movements or voice activation.
Research on synthetic telepathy started in the 1970s at UCLA. From its conception the research was aimed at developing neuroprosthetics that can control external electronic devices. The initial research was done on animals, starting with rodents and slowly moving up to primates. In 2008 researchers at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center succeeded in training a monkey with a neuroprosthetic to operate a robotic arm via thought alone.
The first neuroprosthetic devices were implanted in human brains in the mid- to late-1990s. In 1997 Emory University researchers Philip Kennedy and Roy Bakay (who is now at Rush University Medical Center), started working with Johnny Ray, who suffered from locked-in syndrome following a brainstem stroke that same year. Ray had a neuroprosthetic successfully implanted in 1998. Over the next four years he learned to control a computer cursor via thought alone. In 2005 tetraplegic Matt Nagle received a neural implant and became the first human to control an artificial hand by thinking about moving his hand. Subsequently he also learned to control a computer cursor, a light switch and a television set.
To ensure competitiveness in the face of the Arab spring and the potential US-China military conflict the US military decided to fund synthetic telepathy research in 2008. The military grant money was aimed at research into the development of emails, text and voice messages using thought alone. This could be beneficial for use by undercover agents, prisoners of war and front line soldiers alike. If you can send emails or text messages via thought alone, there is no risk of being cut off from the electronic pipeline. People can quickly come to your rescue when you need them, and information about foreign military development can reach the US spycamp back in the homeland without you moving a finger.
Like other brain scanning devices, such as PET and fMRI, EEG can read which parts of your brain are most (or least) active by measuring how fast neurons in different regions oscillate. So if we know that a particular part of your brain oscillates in the gamma range when you think “Help. The enemy caught me” but oscillates in the alpha range when you think “Everything is cool here,” we can program a computer to translate these signals into a message.
While we already have commercial EEG games, such as Mindball, that allow gamers to manipulate virtual objects by thought alone, EEG messaging may not be just around the corner for the majority of us. EEG is simply not very sensitive when used on the outside of the scalp. In Mindball the EEG device measures which of the players have neural oscillations in the lowest frequency range. This player’s ball then moves across a table. Presumably the one who falls asleep or consumed most Valium wins.
One of the military-funded researchers Mike D’Zmura from UC Irvine thinks that while most of the funded research will be utilized by the military, the research will result in the development of commercial products as soon as the technology is there to support it. Fifteen years ago the thought of sitting on opposite sides of the globe communicating face to face, as we do with Skype, was at best a sci-fi comedy. Now we use it on a daily basis.
Because of the insensitivity of EEG, EEG helmets are most likely never going to be a way to conduct business meetings or presidential debates. But there is really nothing else out there that would work for commercial purposes. You cannot carry an MRI scanner around on your shoulders in order to direct graduate students or play Angry Bird using thought only. Implants are more sensitive than EEG wrapped around your head because they are placed under the scalp. But it’s unlikely that invasive devices will be FDA-approved for the ordinary commercial market any time soon.
One of the main worries people have about thought-controlled text and email messaging is that they will have no privacy left. Dare think a single thought about the woman having dinner at the next table and your spouse will slap your face and leave. But, of course, this is not how these devices will ultimately work. People had the same concerns about Skype-like phone calls.