A paralyzed woman couldn’t speak for more than 20 years. Now she’s able to speak just by thinking. – DNyuz

A paralyzed woman couldn’t speak for more than 20 years. With AI, now she can — just by thinking.

Nearly two decades ago, then-30-year-old Ann Johnson had a brain stem stroke, and though she survived, she was left paralyzed and unable to speak with a condition known as locked-in syndrome.

Johnson slowly regained the ability to breathe independently, move her neck, and wink, but after 18 years, her brain hasn’t recovered its ability to move the muscles required for her to speak more than a few words.

With the help of a new AI-driven brain implant, she has become the first patient to successfully use a groundbreaking neurotechnology that synthesizes speech and facial expressions from brain signals, the researchers behind the project claim.

In a study published in Nature late last month, researchers at the University of California San Francisco and the University of California Berkeley detailed their findings after implanting a thin layer of 253 electrodes on Johnson’s brain and customizing the technology to read her brain signals.

The neurotechnology uses artificial intelligence to decode the woman’s brain signals while she tries to speak. Although her muscles do not move, the brain still sends out a signal that is detectable by electrodes. These decode her words and create a computer generated avatar.

Johnson, who doesn’t have cognitive or sensory impairment after the stroke, could previously communicate at roughly 14 words per minute using her old typing method involving a device that responds to small head movements, per a University of California San Francisco news article about the breakthrough. With her new implant, her digital avatar speaks almost 80.

“Our aim is to restore a natural, embodied communication, the way we naturally communicate with each other,” said Dr. Edward Chang of the University of California San Francisco’s Department of Neurological Surgery. “These advancements bring us much closer to making this a real solution for patients.”

Chang did not immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment.

While the UCSF and UCB researchers claim Johnson’s case is a scientific first for allowing people with locked-in syndrome to communicate using neurotechnology, two researchers from Austria’s Wyss Center for Bio and Neuroengineering claimed last year they had achieved a similar feat.

Though their results working with a 34-year-old man to regain his ability to speak after being paralyzed were promising, the Austrian researchers previously had a paper on the subject retracted, and “several cases of scientific misconduct” were identified in a 2019 investigation conducted by the German Research Foundation (DFG), which funded some of the work.

Despite neurotechnology facing controversy and ethics concerns, developments in the public and private sectors have been identified by groups like the United Nations as among the fastest-growing fields with the possibility to improve human lives.

For Johnson, being involved with the UCSF Project has far-reaching benefits that go beyond just giving her a chance to talk again.

“The speech therapist at the rehabilitation hospital didn’t have a clue what to do when I went there,” Johnson told the UCSF. “Being a part of this study has given me a sense of purpose, I feel like I am contributing to society. This study has allowed me to live life fully while I’m still alive. It’s amazing I have lived this long; this study has allowed me to really live while I’m still alive!”

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