Marilyn Monroe Photos Fuel Research for Paralyzed Patients

People with a rare disorder that paralyzes all muscles except their eyes may one day communicate through computer images because of research using photos of Marilyn Monroe and Josh Brolin.

In an experiment, 12 neurosurgery patients had electrodes implanted to measure how often neurons fired in their brains. When shown fuzzy computer images of both actors, they were able to bring the ones of Monroe into sharper focus by concentrating on them, according to research published in the journal Nature.

This electrode trial was different than previous investigations into brain-machine connections because it used conscious memory and many fewer neurons, said Moran Cerf, a neuroscience researcher at the California Institute of Technology who led the experiment. For paralyzed people such as those with locked-in syndrome it may offer a first step toward communication using machinery to read their thoughts, Cerf said.

“The other groups looked at the neuron and were able to activate things outside the brain, but they were only able to get results based on hundreds of neurons,” Cerf said in a telephone interview. “This is only one neuron. It’s a very precise interface.”

Bill Clinton

The area of the brain where the neurons were firing, the medial temporal lobe, is responsible for processing concepts and is where memories start, Cerf said. For a patient with locked-in syndrome who is in a wheelchair, thinking of Bill Clinton may enable them to move to the left someday, Cerf said.

Locked-in syndrome, popularized by the 1997 book “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” is a rare neurological disorder wherein all voluntary muscles of the body except those that control eye movement are paralyzed, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke in Bethesda, Maryland. There is no cure or standard form of treatment.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” was written by French journalist Jean-Dominique Bauby, who had locked-in syndrome after a stroke; he dictated the book to an assistant by blinking an eye, the only part of his body he could move. She recited the alphabet and he blinked whenever she reached the letter he wanted.

To contact the reporter on this story: Elizabeth Lopatto in New York at elopatto@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Reg Gale at rgale5@bloomberg.net.

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