Brain computer interface helping give new life to young woman

Paul Boerger
Roslyn McCoy works with Cora Lovio on a brain computer interface. The young woman was declared “semi-vegetative” after a car accident 12 years ago. McCoy and Cora's mother say she has now become responsive after working with the headset that wirelessly connects electrical signals from the brain to a computer. Photo by Paul Boerger

Thirty year old Cora Lovio breaks into a broad smile as Roslyn McCoy compliments her on moving an object on the computer screen with her brain waves. She laughs and is clearly excited at her success. The simple video game, however, is more than just entertainment.

Diagnosed as clinically "semi-vegetative" after a car accident when she was 18 years old, Cora is interacting with the world in the only way she can, through brain computer interface technology. Using 14 connection points on the head, the Emotiv EEG neuroheadset uses a set of sensors to tune into electric signals produced by the brain to detect player thoughts, feelings and expressions and connects wirelessly to a computer.

Before McCoy entered the family's life, however, Cora simply sat without any controlled movement or meaningful interaction with the world. Tricia, Cora's mother, says McCoy's work with Cora over the last two years has made a huge difference.

"She's so much better since high school. The high school provided some services to age 21, but it wasn't very effective. Now she has more head control, her eyes are together more and track really well and she has movement in her arms and legs," Tricia said. "She has more control over her voice other than just making noises. She reaches out like she is really trying to give a hug. Anyone who knew her and had not seen her in two years would say, 'Wow.'"

It was no coincidence that brought McCoy to Cora: they live just a few houses away on the same street in Mount Shasta.

"I had this headset, and her family lives just up the street from me. I thought, 'What if she is in there. Could the headset open up possibilities for her?'" McCoy said. "Her mother and I ran into each other on the street and talked about trying it. We have been at it ever since."

McCoy said Cora responded almost immediately.

"Cora had no speech and was completely unresponsive. From the very first, it was apparent Cora could control her brain waves. When we first started working together, I had to hold her head up. Now, she holds her head up herself," McCoy said. "After I started working with her, she became responsive. After working with her for a year, she laughed. Her dad said it was the first time he had heard her laugh since the accident."

McCoy said Cora gained more than just playing simple video games.

"It's more than just using the computer. She has become far more engaged. She was trapped in her body before we began working together. We just don't know how much intelligence is in there," McCoy said. "Recently, she played a two person game with her brother. It was the first time she had played with her brother in 12 years."

Through computer software, McCoy was able to guide Cora into using more of her brain.

"I could tell from the computer screen she was using only half her brain." McCoy said. "When I pointed out the electrical connections that weren't being used, she began to use them. You learn to trigger certain neurons that accomplish the task."

How McCoy came to computer technology is a story in itself.

"I was profoundly dyslexic. I learned to read Braille in high school as a reaction to my dyslexia," McCoy said. "I knew the day would come when computers would talk to me. I dreamed of the day when it would talk to me and I could talk to it."

McCoy now has books routinely read to her off her computer as she highlights text with the mouse. When McCoy acquired the headset, her son, a computer programmer, wrote some simple games for the technology.

"The unit was originally designed for gaming and chatting. I was the first to try this with a profoundly disabled person," McCoy said. "The technology is only about three years old. Right now, there are only a handful of games."

McCoy said that with Cora's progress, they are aiming for a higher goal.

"Doctors describe her state as semi-vegetative. The goal is for Cora to use eye movement software, that would open up a whole new world of control," McCoy said. "We would like to put the eye movement set-up on the table and see what happens. It's a very specialized computer that costs thousands of dollars."

A full eye movement setup can cost upwards of $10,000 and offers text processing, navigating on the Internet, electronic mail, computer design, more complex games and many other applications.

The unit could be provided by a government agency if a therapist signs off that it would make a difference and be constructive for Cora. The family has applied through the Far Northern Regional Center, referred to Connecting to Care in Redding and has been waiting two years for an answer.

"The last therapist dropped the ball. She was let go. We need a therapist to sign off that the eye movement will do her some good before they will pay," Tricia said. "We have a new therapist. Hopefully by summer we will have the go-ahead."

The question is, how much of a difference will the eye movement unit make? McCoy said doctors estimate that as much as "45 to 50 percent of people in this state are really in there."

Tricia has high hopes.

"I think she is all in there. I'll talk about things in the past and she looks at me with a questioning face," Tricia said. "I wonder sometimes if she remembers the accident."

For videos of Cora interacting with the computer, visit YouTube and type in infofree8.