Writing and painting with the eyes

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New procedure enables paralyzed people to write with their eyes

French scientists have found a way that completely paralyzed people can write and paint with their eyes. "This system could help improve the quality of life for patients with limb paralysis," wrote the researchers led by Jean Lorenceau of the Paris Université Pierre et Marie Curie in the journal "Current Biology".

Letters, numbers and simple drawings were no longer a problem with the new system for completely paralyzed patients. They use their eyes to create the shapes they want on a computer screen. The French scientists have found a way to improve the so-called eye tracking method, in which a camera records the movement of the pupil, so that even paralyzed people who suffer from speech loss can communicate with it.

Writing by eye movement was previously not possible According to the researchers, completely paralyzed patients often only have eyes as a means of communication. Previous procedures were relatively complicated. Affected persons had to fix individual letters of the alphabet with their eyes in the correct order on a computer screen and to confirm their entries by blinking. Writing directly about eye movement seemed out of the question, as the eyes can effectively track a moving object, but are “unable to perform movements smoothly and regularly against a static background,” says Lorenceau and colleagues. The constant involuntary twitching of the pupils - so-called saccades - made it impossible for camera programs to implement fine, targeted movements in writing.

Optical trick prevents pupil twitching In order to prevent the pupil from twitching irregularly, the French researchers now used a relatively simple optical trick. A flashing screen background prevents the saccades, so that the subjects were able to draw letters, numbers and simple shapes based on eye tracking. The screen background of the new system is provided with a large number of randomly distributed circles, which change their contrast 720 times per minute and thus generate a continuous flickering. When the view of the display is at rest, the circles appear static, but as soon as "the view moves, there is a clear impression that the panes move with the eye movements," reports Lorenceau. The saccades are prevented by this effect. The pupil movement can by means of. Eye tracking and a relatively simple software can be displayed on the screen.

New method after short training can be used for communication A short training of "two to four training units of 30 minutes each" was enough for the test subjects to control their eye movements so that legible words appeared on the computer display, explained Jean Lorenceau. In the beginning, the subject's line of sight was marked by a ring of colored dots to make training easier. This allowed the subjects to better control what they were drawing. However, Lorenceau explained that not all users could immediately see which line they were creating with their eye movements. For the test subjects, it was as if they were writing blindly. However, users got used to it surprisingly quickly, so that they could display numbers, letters, whole words and drawings after just a short training period.

Patients write with the eyes as quickly as with the hand The paralyzed patient, "This offers quick, creative and personal help for linguistic and emotional expression," explained Jean Lorenceau. According to the French brain researchers, "a well-trained person can write with the eyes at about the same speed as with the hand using the new system." With appropriate training, 20 to 30 letters per minute are not a problem. Under certain circumstances, the system could also be used for training pilots, surgeons, athletes and for other activities that require precise oculomotor control, Lorenceau continues.

Trials planned for patients with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis However, the novel system is primarily intended for use in patients with limb paralysis and speech loss. As a next step, the French scientists are planning testing in people with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). This degenerative disease of the motor nervous system causes progressive and irreversible destruction of the nerve cells required for muscle movement. Accordingly, the patients suffer from increasing paralysis, which also causes speech loss as the disease progresses. Therefore, the ALS patients could benefit significantly from the invention of the French brain researchers in their communication skills. (fp)

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