Scientists have reported a remarkable advance toward helping stroke victims who have lost the ability to speak.
Ann Johnson, a 30-year-old teacher, volleyball coach, and mother of an infant, had a cataclysmic stroke that paralyzed her and robbed her of speech.
Scientists implanted electrodes and decoded her brain signals as she silently tried to say sentences. Technology converted her brain signals into written and vocalized language, enabling an avatar on a computer screen to speak the words and display smiles, pursed lips, and other expressions.
The research, published in the journal Nature, demonstrates the first time spoken words and facial expressions have been directly synthesized from brain signals, experts say.
Mrs. Johnson chose the avatar, a face resembling hers, and researchers used her wedding toast to develop the avatar’s voice. The goal is to help people who cannot speak because of strokes or conditions like cerebral palsy and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. To work, Mrs. Johnson’s implant must be connected by cable from her head to a computer, but her team and others are developing wireless versions.
Eventually, researchers hope that people who have lost speech may converse in real-time through computerized pictures of themselves that convey tone, inflection, and emotions like joy and anger.
Mrs. Johnson, a Canadian woman with a brainstem stroke, began participating in a study by Dr. Chang in 2021. The researchers, who work part-time, travel to California to assist her in her wheelchair. Mrs. Johnson communicates with Dr. Chang using a computer screen with a reflective dot, which she uses to recite letters and words. The study is part of a multiyear study that aims to improve communication and assistive technology for people with disabilities.
Mrs. Johnson has started to smile at will. She has also begun swallowing therapy and now eats finely chopped or soft foods. Mrs. Johnson’s goal is to become a counselor and use this technology to talk to her clients.
She has also gained confidence in her abilities, and the technology has made her feel like she has a job again.