Dan Bacher’s job is all about the not-so-simple connection between thinking and doing.
Bacher is a 29-year-old engineer who has been working with BrainGate, a collaboration between Brown University and other academic institutions, to pioneer an experimental brain implant that helps people with severe, paralyzing brain injuries use computers to regain movement and task completion. Bacher has been working with BrainGate patient Cathy Hutchinson, who suffered a brain stem stroke in 1996 that left her mostly motionless but with an alert mind. An optimistic sticker on her wheelchair reads “My legs don’t work, but my brain does.” Bacher and BrainGate have implanted a computer chip in her brain that helps her move a robotic arm by thinking about doing so and perform tasks such as picking up a cup of coffee and drinking it through a straw. Though this technology proves immensely helpful, Hutchinson still struggles with something more basic — communication.
Her $10,000 communications device malfunctions often and is time consuming to use. Bacher said watching and seeing this struggle is what inspired him to create a nonprofit called SpeakYourMind Foundation Inc. Bacher is using SpeakYourMind to find low-cost alternatives to expensive communications technology. He just installed an $800 Windows tablet on her wheel chair with new communications software that uses her slight head movements along with algorithms to spell out words on the screen or send emails. Though the software is still new, it’s a step up from Hutchinson’s current form of communication. Before Bacher left Hutchinson’s home after installing the new tablet, it took her 45 minutes to write this short message to The Providence Journal: “I’m excited about the future of sym,” she wrote, using sym as the acronym for SpeakYourMind. “I have faith in sym and I’m very optimistic about the help it will bring to so many.”