The encephalophone

Encephalophone creates music from thoughts

Image credit: University of Washington

Neuroscientists at the University of Washington have developed a hands-free musical instrument, the Encephalophone, entirely controlled using the mind. They hope that this could be used to help the rehabilitation of patients with limited movement.

“The Encephalophone is a musical instrument that you control with your thoughts, without movement,” said Professor Thomas Deuel, a neuroscientist at the University of Washington and neurologist at the Swedish Medical Center in Seattle.

“I am 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 […] I thought it would be great to use a brain-computer instrument to enable patients to play music again without requiring movement.”

Professor Deuel developed the first model of the Encephalophone with colleagues in his independent laboratory. An early report laid out evidence of how easily the instrument can be used, with 15 healthy adults being able to use the instrument quite effectively, even with no prior training.

The instrument harvests delicate electrical signals through a cap of electrodes, using the decades-old method of electroencephalography (EEG). EEG has been touted by scientists and entrepreneurs as a likely brain-machine interface for mind-controlled devices, such as some vehicles and computer applications.

The Encephalophone uses either signals associated with the visual cortex, allowing for simple operation with blinking, or signals associated with thoughts about movement. While the latter is harder to control, its promise to help patients with physical disabilities has led Professor Deuel and his colleagues to pursue this approach.

“There is great potential for the Encephalophone to hopefully improve rehabilitation of stroke patients and those with motor disabilities,” added Professor Deuel.

The electrical signals are transformed into musical notes, and a synthesiser produces music, offering a range of instrumental sounds. The researchers worked with the University of Washington’s Center for Digital Arts and Experimental Media in order to improve the musical versatility of the instrument.

Eventually, it is hoped that the instrument could empower and rehabilitate patients with limited motor function, such as those who have suffered strokes, spinal cord injuries, amputations, or those with permanently debilitating conditions, such as motor neuron disease.

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