As It Happens

Create music just by thinking about it with the encephalophone

This device uses brain waves to create notes and could help in the rehabilitation of stroke patients.
Thomas Deuel, a neuroscientist from the University of Washington, showcases the Encephalophone. (Thomas Deuel)

Story transcript

Most musical instruments require nimble fingers, good hand-eye coordination and sometimes, a lot of energy in order to play them. But a new instrument doesn't require any movement at all. The only thing it needs is one's brain. 

Dr. Thomas Deuel is a neurologist who recently created the encephalophone. It's a device that plays notes according to a person's brain signals and Deuel says this brain-computer interface could one day help people with motor disorders.

Deuel spoke with As It Happens guest host Helen Mann about the encephalophone. Here is part of their conversation.

It sounds like [in the video above] you are kind of filling in gaps in the music there. How are you doing that? How do you actually play those sounds with your brain?

So the device uses a signal in the brain, from the electrical activity of the brain, that is turned on and off with movement. It's also turned on and off, importantly, when you think about movement.

So I'm thinking about moving more and less and that is turning into notes in the instrument.

 So you're not concentrating on actual musical notes?

Not directly, but much in the way that a person who learns how to play a violin might start by thinking about where their fingers are, before they get to thinking about the notes that come out much. As I've learned how to use the device more, you can start to think about notes more directly and the rest of it kind of happens automatically.

Because that was pretty musical. I mean, it did sound like what you were thinking did fit in with those chords.

It did and we have some pretty good control over it. We're cheating a little in the sense that it's within the same key, so you're never going to play too wrong of a note. And I'm improvising there. So it's not at the point of accuracy where I can follow a precise musical score.

Thomas Deuel hopes that one day the Encephalophone can be used to rehabilitate stroke patients' cognitive and motor skills. (University of Washington)

In your study, you tested the instrument on 15 individuals. What did you have them do?

We had novice individuals, meaning people who had never done this before, and we had them attempt to match a target note. So we played a note and they tried to hit that note three times in a row within 10 seconds. And we just measured how accurate they were.

I think it will be very inspiring for, say, a musician who used to play the piano to be able to play a piano again without having to move.- Thomas Deuel

So what was the result?

So all 15 people did much better than random.

And then there was a range of accuracy levels. Ranging from around 48 per cent accurate up to 92 per cent accurate, depending on the individual. So we have a lot of hope that this first study just shows that people who have never used it before have some accuracy where, with training, people can get much more accurate than that.

Where did the idea come from? Where did you get the inspiration for this device?

I had, in my life, been pursuing music and neuroscience somewhat separately. They're kind of two passions of mine. And when I was doing research and studying neurophysiology, which is EEG, basically, those brain waves ... I was thinking about people who had taken this EEG signal, turned it into sound or different types of music in the past, and I said, "You know, I think I can do this better."

And I can make it a device that is accurate and can generate music volitionally, meaning with control, in real time.

Thomas Deuel is a neuroscientist from the University of Washington and the lead scientist on the the encephalophone project. (Thomas Deuel)

Are there other potential applications for people with disabilities, beyond playing music?

What we plan to do further is to try to see if we can help them out with their cognitive rehabilitation and with their motor rehabilitation, so stroke patients are undergoing intensive physical therapy to try to get them stronger and more coordinated with their limbs that they've lost some of their power from. And we hope to use the device in parallel with the physical therapy to try to improve that. We have no proof yet that that will work, but we have high hopes and some evidence that suggests that will work.

Right. And yet at the same time, those who have lost the ability to play, it must give them great pleasure to think that they can perform again somehow?

I think it will be very inspiring for, say, a musician who used to play the piano to be able to play a piano again without having to move.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. To hear more from Dr. Thomas Deuel, listen to our broadcast interview.

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