brain damage

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Cheap, Low-Tech Devices Help Paralyzed Patients ‘Speak Their Minds’

Cathy

Cathy Hutchinson, who had a brainstem stroke, is using a head mouse to type on a prototype keyboard, and has typed that she likes it. (Courtesy SpeakYourMind Foundation.)

By Suzanne Jacobs
Guest contributor

When the man started quoting Shakespeare with his eyebrow, Dan Bacher knew he was on to something.

All it took was an off-the-shelf webcam, a green sticker and an app, and the stroke victim had regained his ability to communicate.

“Before that, what he would do is, someone would stand next to him and literally read through the alphabet, and then he would raise his eyebrow to pick a letter,” Bacher says. “He was fully dependent on someone else, and he couldn’t initiate conversation. Someone had to say, ‘Do you want to say something?’”

So Bacher, an engineer, and his colleagues put a green sticker the size of a pencil eraser on the man’s eyebrow and turned a webcam into a tracking system that could follow the green sticker and register a raised eyebrow as a mouse click. With a custom-made app, the man could then scroll through the alphabet and type on his own.

And then Shakespeare — part of a line from “Henry IV” that goes, “A good wit will make use of anything; I will turn diseases to commodity.”

“It was just like one of those wow moments, where we realized, ‘Wow, what we’re doing here really is making a difference,’” Bacher recalls. The device was just a prototype, but Bacher said he hopes to have something permanent for the patient in the coming months.

Bacher is the founder and CEO of the SpeakYourMind Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in Providence, Rhode Island, that’s developing low-cost and easy-to-use communication devices for people with neurological disorders who are “locked in,” virtually unable to move.

So far, the organization has only worked with about 12 clients and is still experimenting with prototype devices, but ultimately, Bacher says, he wants to have products that are widely available. Already, he says, people have been contacting him from around the country asking for help.

SpeakYourMind is far from the cutting edge of research on “brain-computer interfaces,” but that’s the point. Having worked in Brown University’s BrainGate Lab, one of the leading research centers for advanced brain-computer interface technology, Bacher knows all about the cutting edge, and that’s why he decided to start SpeakYourMind — to give people a simpler option, at least for now. Continue reading

Why To Exercise Today: Prevent Brain Damage


I almost forgot about this one. And it’s not just forgetfulness that increases with age; I have the decided impression that with every passing year, I get a tiny bit dumber overall. It’s probably a paranoid illusion, but it stems from findings that the years do put certain kinds of wear-and-tear on the brain.

In some people, the brain develops “silent strokes,” in which blood supply is blocked to tiny areas. But — you guessed it! — a new study finds that vigorous exercise appears to help guard against those little brain attacks. As USA Today reports here:

Older people who regularly exercise at moderate to intense levels may have a 40% lower risk of developing brain damage linked to ischemic strokes, certain kinds of dementia and mobility problems.
New research published Wednesday in the journal Neurology says the MRIs of people who exercised at higher levels were significantly less likely to show silent brain infarcts — caused by blocked arteries that interrupt blood flow and are markers for strokes — than people who exercised lightly.
Until now, studies have shown exercise helps lower blood pressure, bad cholesterol and insulin levels, all risk factors for strokes causing brain damage. Treating those conditions is helpful, but often brain damage from multiple infarctions is not reversible.
“It’s not good enough just to exercise, but the more (intense) the better,” says physician Joshua Willey, a co-author of the study and researcher at Columbia University’s Department of Neurology. “We think exercise is protecting against the development of brain infarcts, and the hope is with lower risk of having these events, you’d also be at lower risk of dementia or stro

ke.”