The Art & Science of Sound

The Encephalophone - Combining Music And the Brain For An Amazing Instrument

Describing it as a “music prosthetic,” Thomas Deuel, a neuroscientist at the University of Washington authored a paper last year detailing the Encephalophone. “[It is] a musical instrument that you control with your thoughts, without movement. I am a musician and neurologist,” he continued, “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.”   

The Encephalophone is a thought-controlled musical instrument that was described in last summer’s report in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. It collects brain signals through a skull cap that transforms specific signals into musical notes with help from synthesizer. The possibilities for help with rehabilitation, or to simply give patients with motor disabilities, amputations, or diseases such as ALS, a chance to continue with an activity that was part of their lives pre-condition are astounding.

Dr. Deuel developed the Encephalophone through independent research and experimentation with University of Washington physicist Dr. Felix Darvas, and initial experiments show that with no prior training with the instrument people were able to recreate musical tones. “These first subjects did quite well, way above chance probability on their very first try,” said Dr. Deuel.

The Encephalophone is controlled by two separate types of brain signal: those associated with the visual cortex that control closing or moving one’s eyes, or brain signals associated with movement and motor function. At this point, control by eye movement is the most consistent way to play the Encephalophone but controlling the instrument using thoughts associated with motor function will be most useful for disabled patients, and research and development is continuing along those lines.

Lest you think this is some fabulous new technological advance, interfaces between the brain and computers are not a new thing. In the 1930s scientists were converting brain waves into sounds and by the 1960s the technology had advanced enough to allow those signals to create musical notes and tones. Along with his partner Dr. Darvas, Dr. Deuel’s breakthrough is that these signals and the interfacing are now more easily controlled. By using far more advanced technology than was available to earlier researchers, the instrument is also now far more accessible to non-clinical users.

Clinical trials with disabled patients were scheduled to being in late 2017, so we can only wait with excitement and hope that the Encephalophone will someday soon become a useful tool for therapists and patients.  

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