Stephen Hawking tests NeuroVigil brain device

With world-renowned physicist Stephen Hawking, NeuroVigil has obtained arguably the best test subject ever. 

The fledgling San Diego startup is now testing its iBrain device, which is designed to help paralyzed subjects communicate just by thinking. And Hawking, who has Lou Gehrig's disease and has long been unable to move and talk, draws global attention for what he does. What better person to conduct a preliminary test for the device? The New York Times took notice, and has written a substantial article about Hawking's participation in the device test. (Another media lure: The writer also points out that NeuroVigil is founded and run by 32-year-old superstar neuroscientist Philip Low, and his Ph.D. thesis formed the basis of the company.)

A black headband helps hold the small matchbox-sized device on the head. It picks up electrical brain signals that are in turn interpreted with an algorithm Low developed as part of his Ph.D. thesis. Those signals change when a person performs different tasks or activities, Low explains to the NYT, and Hawking will attempt to use the device to think something that could be translated into a word, or a letter or some kind of computer command. (He currently uses infrared glasses to communicate a message by picking up movement in his cheek, according to the story.)

So far, Low says, Hawking has used the device to "imagine he was scrunching his right hand into a ball." The device algorithm translated the electrical waves as signals (visualized as spikes on a grid). The test was successful, with signals changing as part of the specific thought, so Low said the company will proceed to studies with larger groups of patients who have Lou Gehrig's disease or other neurodegenerative conditions.

NeuroVigil last month closed its first round of financing. The company declined to disclose the amount, which came from "an anonymous industrialist and technology visionary."

- here's the NYT story (subs. req.)