A paralyzed man has tweeted a message out to the world using his thoughts through a brain-computer interface. It’s thought this is the first time a message has been successfully posted on social media directly using an implantable brain-computer interface.
Philip O’Keefe, a 62-year-old from Australia with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), composed and posted the tweet on December 23 using only his thoughts and an endovascular brain-computer interface (BCI) developed by neuroprosthetic startup Synchron.
“No need for keystrokes or voices. I created this tweet just by thinking it #helloworldbci,” said the tweet, which was posted to the account of Synchron CEO, Thomas Oxley.
“My hope is that I’m paving the way for people to tweet through thoughts,” O’Keefe, who has progressive paralysis caused by ALS, added in a follow-up message.
He also replied to a small handful of questions and liked several of the messages replying to his tweets.
O’Keefe has lost the use of many of his voluntary muscles due to ALS, an early-onset and slow-progressing form of motor neurone disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. ALS begins with difficulty speaking or swallowing, but progresses to include muscle stiffness, increased weakness, and eventually paralysis. The condition, which famously affected Stephen Hawking, gained further notoriety thanks to the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, an online fundraising challenge that went viral in 2014.
He received an endovascular Stentrode brain-computer interface in April 2020 after his condition deteriorated, leaving him unable to work and live independently. He’s been using the brain-computer interface to reconnect with loved ones and even send out business emails, but this is the first time he’s used the system to tweet. In fact, Synchron says this is the first time anyone has sent a message out into the world on social media directly through thought using an implantable brain-computer interface.
So, how does it work? A node is implanted into the brain via the jugular vein in the neck, placed in the chest under the skin, avoiding the need for drilling into the skull or open brain surgery. It sits on the motor cortex, part of the brain in charge of voluntary physical movement, and picks up on brain signals. The user can look at a screen with a keyboard on, for example, and envision which letter they want to type. Through a device placed on the chest, a machine learning algorithm will then process the brain data and translate those signals into specific digital commands.
That might sound like a pretty complicated process to type out a simple tweet, but O’Keefe suggests it comes remarkably easily with a bit of practice.
“When I first heard about this technology, I knew how much independence it could give back to me,” O’Keefe said in a statement. “The system is astonishing, it’s like learning to ride a bike – it takes practice, but once you’re rolling, it becomes natural. Now, I just think about where on the computer I want to click, and I can email, bank, shop, and now message the world via Twitter.”
“These fun holiday tweets are actually an important moment for the field of implantable brain-computer interfaces. They highlight the connection, hope, and freedom that BCIs give to people like Phil who have had so much of their functional independence taken away due to debilitating paralysis,” added Oxley. “We look forward to advancing our brain-computer interface, Stentrode, in the first US in-human study next year.”