A newly developed, hands-free musical instrument could be the next novel rehabilitation therapy for patients with motor disabilities.

The ‘Encephalophone’ is an instrument that can be controlled by the mind alone, with no external stimuli needed. The researchers hope it could play an important role in empowering and rehabilitating those diagnosed with motor neurone disease, spinal cord injuries, stroke or amputation. It was designed by Thomas Deuel, a neurologist and neuroscientist at Swedish Medical Centre.

“I am a musician and a neurologist, and I have seen many patients who played music prior to their stroke or other motor impairment, who can no longer play an instrument or sing,” said Deuel. “I thought it would be great to use a brain-computer instrument to enable patients to play music again without requiring movement.”

Thoughtful notes

The bizarre instrument works by borrowing a technique from history called electroencephalography, or EEG. This is a non-invasive way to monitor and record the electrical activity inside the brain, usually by wearing a special cap fitted with electrodes.

The encephalophone collects these electrical brain signals and converts them into musical notes. By coupling the invention with a synthesiser, users can create music using a variety of different instrumental sounds.

With its roots dating back as far as the late 1800s, the first EEG to convert brain waves into sound took place in 1930s. Similar studies continued over the next few decades, taking on a more musical approach as the swinging sixties arrived.

Telekinetic jam sessions

The instrument can be controlled by picking up one of two different brain signals. The first is linked to the visual cortex and triggered by opening or closing your eyes. The second are those produced when thinking about movement, for example, curling and uncurling your fist.

Deuel originally developed his mind-controlled instrument in his own laboratory, with the help of Dr Felix Darvas, a physicist from the University of Washington. Together, they conducted a preliminary study, testing out the encephalophone on 15 healthy adults. While the trial group could all recreate musical tones with no prior training on the instrument, Deuel did find users had more control over the music by closing their eyes than imagining movements.

Working with the Centre for Digital Arts and Experimental Media, Deuel has refined the instrument, making it more musical and easier to use. He plans to begin clinical trials with the encephalophone later this year to test its use as a rehabilitation tool.