An American neurologist has developed a musical instrument that can be played with the mind. It is called an encephalophone and is designed for people with motor impairments that inhibit their ability to play an instrument.
“I’m a musician and neurologist, and I’ve seen many patients who played music prior to their stroke or other motor impairment, who can no longer play an instrument or sing,” said Dr Thomas Deuel, a neurologist at Swedish Hospital, who developed the instrument with a team at the University of Washington. “I thought it would be great to use a brain-computer instrument to enable patients to play music again without requiring movement.”
The encephalophone works by collecting brain signals, which can be sent by closing the eyes or by thinking about movement. These signals travel to a cap, worn by the user, which turns them into musical notes and sends them to a synthesised piano.
In April, Dr Deuel and his team published the results of a trial of the encephalophone in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, a medical journal. Fifteen participants new to the instrument attempted to hit target notes during a five-minute period. When signalling visually, their accuracy rate was 67.1%. Meanwhile, signals sent via thought were 57.1% accurate.
“It’s not incredibly complicated,” Dr Deuel said. “Anyone can learn it, really. It’s just like picking up a new instrument of any other kind: You have to go through a learning curve.”
In a few months, he will run more trials, to explore the therapeutic potential of the encephalophone. He hope that patients experiencing motor impairments, such as those suffered after a stroke or amputation, might benefit from the instrument’s biofeedback.
Although the encephalophone is new, scientists have been turning brain signals into sound since 1934, with increasing control and accuracy.