Researchers use brain interface to post to Twitter (w/Video)

April 20, 2009

( -- In early April, Adam Wilson posted a status update on the social networking Web site Twitter -- just by thinking about it.

Just 23 characters long, his message, "using EEG to send tweet," demonstrates a natural, manageable way in which "locked-in" patients can couple brain-computer interface technologies with modern communication tools.

A University of Wisconsin-Madison biomedical engineering doctoral student, Wilson is among a growing group of researchers worldwide who aim to perfect a communication system for users whose bodies do not work, but whose brains function normally. Among those are people who have amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), brain-stem stroke or high spinal cord injury.

This video is not supported by your browser at this time.
video of Wilson using the brain-computer interface to post to Twitter

Some brain-computer interface systems employ an electrode-studded cap wired to a computer. The electrodes detect in the brain — essentially, thoughts — and translate them into physical actions, such as a cursor motion on a computer screen. "We started thinking that moving a cursor on a screen is a good scientific exercise," says Justin Williams, a UW-Madison assistant professor of biomedical engineering and Wilson's adviser. "But when we talk to people who have locked-in syndrome or a spinal-cord injury, their No. 1 concern is communication."

In collaboration with research scientist Gerwin Schalk and colleagues at the Wadsworth Center in Albany, N.Y., Williams and Wilson began developing a simple, elegant communication interface based on related to changes in an object on screen.

The interface consists, essentially, of a keyboard displayed on a computer screen. "The way this works is that all the letters come up, and each one of them flashes individually," says Williams. "And what your brain does is, if you're looking at the 'R' on the screen and all the other letters are flashing, nothing happens. But when the 'R' flashes, your brain says, 'Hey, wait a minute. Something's different about what I was just paying attention to.' And you see a momentary change in brain activity."

Wilson, who used the interface to post the update, likens it to texting on a cell phone. "You have to press a button four times to get the character you want," he says of texting. "So this is kind of a slow process at first."

However, as with texting, users improve as they practice using the interface. "I've seen people do up to eight characters per minute," says Wilson.

A free service, Twitter has been called a "micro-blogging" tool. User updates, called tweets, have a 140-character limit — a manageable message length that fits locked-in users' capabilities, says Williams.

Tweets are displayed on the user's profile page and delivered to other Twitter users who have signed up to receive them. "So someone could simply tell family and friends how they're feeling today," says Williams. "People at the other end can be following their thread and never know that the person is disabled. That would really be an enabling type of communication means for those people, and I think it would make them feel, in the online world, that they're not that much different from everybody else. That's why we did these things."

Schalk agrees. "This is one of the first — and perhaps most useful — integrations of brain-computer interface techniques with Internet technologies to date," he says.

While widespread implementation of brain-computer interface technologies is still years down the road, Wadsworth Center researchers, as well as those at the University of Tübingen in Germany, are starting in-home trials of the equipment. Wilson, who will finish his Ph.D. soon and begin postdoctoral research at Wadsworth, plans to include Twitter in the trials.

Williams hopes the Twitter application is the nudge researchers need to refine development of the in-home technology. "A lot of the things that we've been doing are more scientific exercises," he says. "This is one of the first examples where we've found something that would be immediately useful to a much larger community of people with neurological deficits."

Follow on Twitter!

Source: University of Wisconsin-Madison (news : web)

Related Stories

Recommended for you

How the finch changes its tune

August 3, 2015

Like top musicians, songbirds train from a young age to weed out errors and trim variability from their songs, ultimately becoming consistent and reliable performers. But as with human musicians, even the best are not machines. ...

Machine Translates Thoughts into Speech in Real Time

December 21, 2009

( -- By implanting an electrode into the brain of a person with locked-in syndrome, scientists have demonstrated how to wirelessly transmit neural signals to a speech synthesizer. The "thought-to-speech" process ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Apr 20, 2009
Congratulations, by taking the blue pill you have been reinserted into the matrix. Have a nice day.
not rated yet Apr 20, 2009
Not bad. The real breakthrough though would be to have a program that can translate thoughts into text directly. Writing an R when I'm thinking R.
not rated yet Apr 21, 2009
You may be aware of this already but there is an alternative text entry system called Dasher which can be seen here:


I'm pretty sure moving the mouse pointer could be 'thought' controlled in some way?

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.