Rare Disease Report

Neurologists Hope Hands-Free Musical Instrument Will Help Rehabilitate ALS Patients

JULY 12, 2017
Mathew Shanley
A report published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience describes a new hands-free, thought-controlled musical instrument that was created with the hope that it will help patients with motor disabilities such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or persons recovering from a stroke.
ALS – often referred to as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease” – is a classic motor neuron disease. As the disease progresses, a patient’s abilities to move, speak and swallow are rapidly lost after early symptoms like muscle weakness or stiffness. Eventually, a patient will lose the ability to breathe, and his or her life expectancy is typically 2-5 years after diagnosis. However, while their muscles deteriorate, their central nervous system stays intact. The ability to generate music in spite of no longer being able to control motor movement could prove to be beneficial for both emotional and cognitive rehabilitation.
The Encephalophone was created using electroencephalogram (EEG) posterior dominant rhythm (PDR) or mu rhythm to control a synthesized piano. The instrument collects brain signals through a cap that is worn by the patient, that converts specific signals into musical notes. Paired with a synthesizer, the novel product permits the user to create music using an array of instrumental sounds.
"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," said Thomas Deuel, a neurologist at Swedish Medical Center and a neuroscientist at the University of Washington, and primary author of the report to Science Daily. "I thought it would be great to use a brain-computer instrument to enable patients to play music again without requiring movement."
In collaboration with University of Washington physicist Dr Felix Darvas, Deuel originally developed the Encephalophone in his own independent laboratory. Their preliminary study displayed the ease of the instrument’s use, and showed that 15 healthy adults could operate it to accurately recreate musical tones with no prior training.
"We first sought to prove that novices -- subjects who had no training on the Encephalophone whatsoever -- could control the device with an accuracy that was better than random," says Deuel. "These first subjects did quite well, way above chance probability on their very first try."
Based on brain-computer interfaces using electroencephalography, the Encephalophone can be operated through 2 independent types of brain signals: either those associated with the visual cortex (i.e. closing one's eyes), or those associated with thinking about movement, the latter of which is likely the more feasible for disabled patients.
The Center for Digital Arts and Experimental Media (DXARTS) at the University of Washington has joined the project and will team up with Deuel to continue to make the instrument more musically versatile and easier to use.
Clinical trials to evaluate the ease of use, usefulness and efficacy of the Encephalophone are in the works for the final quarter of 2017.
Deuel T, Pampin J, Sundstrom J, Darvox F. The Encephalophone: A Novel Musical Biofeedback Device using Conscious Control of Electroencephalogram (EEG). Front Human Neurosci. 2017; doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2017.00213

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