Ann Johnson was just 30 years old when she experienced a life-altering stroke in 2005 that left her paralyzed and unable to speak. At the time, she was a math and P.E. teacher at Luther College in Regina, had an eight-year-old stepson and had just welcomed a baby girl into the world.
“Overnight, everything was taken from me,” she wrote, according to a post from Luther College.
The stroke left her with locked-in syndrome (LIS), a rare neurological disorder that can cause full paralysis except for the muscles that control eye movement, the National Institutes of Health writes.
Johnson, now 47, described her experience with LIS in a paper she wrote for a psychology class in 2020, painstakingly typed letter by letter.
“You’re fully cognizant, you have full sensation, all five senses work, but you are locked inside a body where no muscles work,” she wrote. “I learned to breathe on my own again, I now have full neck movement, my laugh returned, I can cry and read and over the years my smile has returned, and I am able to wink and say a few words.”
A year later, in 2021, Johnson learned of a research study that had the potential to change her life. She was selected as one of eight participants for the clinical trial, offered by the departments of neurology and neurosurgery at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), and was the only Canadian.
“I always knew that my injury was rare, and living in Regina was remote. My kids were young when my stroke happened, and I knew participating in a study would mean leaving them. So, I waited until this summer to volunteer – my kids are now 25 and 17,” she writes.
Now, the results of Johnson’s work with a team of U.S. neurologists and computer scientists have come to fruition.
A study published in Nature on Wednesday revealed that Johnson is the first person in the world to speak out loud via decoded brain signals.
An implant that rests on her brain records her neurological activity while an artificial intelligence (AI) model translates those signals into words. In real time, that decoded text is synthesized into speech, spoken out loud by a digital avatar that can even generate Johnson’s facial expressions.
The system can translate Johnson’s brain activity into text at a rate of nearly 80 words per minute, much faster than the 14 words per minute she can achieve typing out words with her current communication device, which tracks her eye movements.
The breakthrough was demonstrated in a video released by UCSF, in which Johnson speaks to her husband for the first time using her own voice, which the AI model can mimic thanks to a recording of Johnson taken on her wedding day.
“How are you feeling about the Blue Jays today?” her husband Bill asks, wearing a cap from the Toronto baseball team.
“Anything is possible,” she responds via the avatar.
Johnson’s husband jokes that she doesn’t seem very confident in the Jays.
“You are right about that,” she says, smiling.
The research team behind the technology, known as a brain-computer interface, hopes it can secure approval from U.S. regulators to make this system accessible to the public.
“Our goal is to restore a full, embodied way of communicating, which is the most natural way for us to talk with others,” says Edward Chang, chair of neurological surgery at UCSF and one of the lead authors of the study. “These advancements bring us much closer to making this a real solution for patients.”
So, how did they do it?
The team surgically implanted a paper-thin grid of 253 electrodes onto the surface of Johnson’s brain, covering the areas that are important for speech.
“The electrodes intercepted the brain signals that, if not for the stroke, would have gone to muscles in Ann’s lips, tongue, jaw and larynx, as well as her face,” a news release from UCSF reads.
Those brain signals get transferred into a port that is screwed onto the outside of Johnson’s head. From there, a cable that plugs into the port can be hooked up to a bank of computers that decode the signals into text and synthesize the text into speech.
The AI model doesn’t exactly decode Johnson’s thoughts, but interprets how Johnson’s brain would move her face to make sounds — a process that also allows the AI to generate her facial expressions and emotions.
The AI translates these muscle signals into the building blocks of speech: components called phonemes.
“These are the sub-units of speech that form spoken words in the same way that letters form written words. ‘Hello,’ for example, contains four phonemes: ‘HH,’ ‘AH,’ ‘L’ and ‘OW,’” according to the UCSF release.
“Using this approach, the computer only needed to learn 39 phonemes to decipher any word in English. This both enhanced the system’s accuracy and made it three times faster.”
Over the course of many weeks, Johnson worked with the research team to train the AI to “recognize her unique brain signals for speech.”
They did this by repeating phrases from a bank of 1,024 words over and over again until the AI learned to recognize Johnson’s brain activity associated with each phoneme.
“The accuracy, speed and vocabulary are crucial,” said Sean Metzger, who developed the AI decoder with Alex Silva, both graduate students in the joint bioengineering program at UC Berkeley and UCSF. “It’s what gives Ann the potential, in time, to communicate almost as fast as we do, and to have much more naturalistic and normal conversations.”
Johnson is still getting used to hearing her old voice again, generated by the AI. The model was trained on a recording of a speech Johnson gave on her wedding day, allowing her digital avatar to sound similar to how she spoke before the stroke.
“My brain feels funny when it hears my synthesized voice,” she told UCSF. “It’s like hearing an old friend.
“My daughter was one when I had my injury, it’s like she doesn’t know Ann.… She has no idea what Ann sounds like.”
Her daughter only knows the British-accented voice of her current communication device.
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Another bonus of the brain-computer interface is that Johnson can control the facial movements of her digital avatar, making its jaw open, lips protrude and tongue go up and down if she wishes. She can also simulate facial expressions for happiness, sadness and surprise.
“When Ann first used this system to speak and move the avatar’s face in tandem, I knew that this was going to be something that would have a real impact,” said Kaylo Littlejohn, a graduate student working with the research team.
The next steps for the researchers will be to develop a wireless version of the system that wouldn’t require Johnson to be physically hooked up to computers. Currently, she’s wired in with cables that plug into the port on the top of her head.
“Giving people like Ann the ability to freely control their own computers and phones with this technology would have profound effects on their independence and social interactions,” said study co-author David Moses, a professor in neurological surgery.
Johnson says being part of a brain-computer interface study has given her “a sense of purpose.”
“I feel like I am contributing to society. It feels like I have a job again. It’s amazing I have lived this long; this study has allowed me to really live while I’m still alive!”
Johnson was inspired to become a trauma counsellor after hearing about the Humboldt Broncos bus crash that claimed the lives of 16 young hockey players in 2018. With the help of this AI interface, and the freedom and ease of communication it allows, she hopes that dream will soon become a reality.
The Key Role of Trustworthy Babysitters in Balancing Work and Family Life
Are you a busy parent in constant pursuit of the elusive work-life balance? We know firsthand how overwhelming and challenging it can be to juggle professional commitments while still having quality time with your children.
That’s why we’re here to discuss an essential ingredient that unlocks the secret to harmony: trustworthy babysitters.
What Characteristics Parents Should Look for When Choosing a Babysitter?
Parents should look for a few key characteristics when choosing a babysitter. A good babysitter should be patient, responsible, and reliable. They should also be comfortable with children and have prior experience caring for them.
Besides, the babysitter must be able to communicate effectively and follow directions well. The babysitter should be someone the parents can trust to care for their children in their absence.
Strategies for Parents to Establish Reasonable Anticipations
As a parent, finding babysitters you can trust to care for your children is vital. However, it is also important to establish reasonable expectations for your babysitters.
Some tips for establishing reasonable expectations for babysitters include:
- Set clear expectations: Sit down with your babysitter to discuss bedtime routines, dietary preferences, and any necessary medications.
- Allow flexibility: While clarity is vital, also provide room for your babysitter to use their judgment and feel comfortable in their role.
- Trust their expertise: Once expectations are set, trust your babysitter’s judgment as a professional caregiver to avoid undermining their authority and creating discomfort in their role.
Determining a Fair Payment Plan
Determine your babysitting budget, factoring in your income and family size, while researching local rates. Account for the babysitter’s experience and qualifications, giving preference to those recommended by trusted sources.
Engage in open negotiations with your chosen babysitter. This aims to find a mutually agreeable arrangement that accommodates both your budget and their needs.
Tips on Finding Trustworthy and Compassionate Caregivers
When seeking a caregiver for your child, to ensure you find the right fit:
- Seek recommendations from trusted sources such as friends, family, and neighbours who may have suggestions for caregivers in your area.
- Conduct online research to review feedback and check references to gauge candidates’ qualifications and experience.
- Request references and contact details from the caregivers’ previous employers or families they have worked with.
- Trust your instincts and ensure you feel at ease with the caregiver, ensuring they are someone you can entrust with your child’s well-being.
Being able to trust your babysitter means you can have peace of mind knowing your child is safe and cared for.
Spending some time researching online reviews or asking friends and family for recommendations will help you find the perfect fit so you can feel more at ease while juggling work commitments in today’s hectic world.
Facility-wide COVID-19 outbreak at Bethammi Nursing Home
THUNDER BAY — St. Joseph’s Care Group and the Thunder Bay District Health Unit have declared a facility-wide COVID-19 outbreak at Bethammi Nursing Home, part of the St. Joseph’s Heritage complex on Carrie Street near Red River Road.
The respiratory outbreak at the 112-bed facility was declared effective Sept. 15 but only announced publicly on Monday.
No details were provided with regard to the number of people affected to date.
Restrictions are now in place for admissions, transfers, discharges, social activities and visitation until further notice.
Alberta COVID hospitalizations up 73% since July: health minister
Three weeks after the start of the school year, Alberta’s health minister provided an update on the spread of airborne viruses in the province.
Adriana LaGrange also said more information about flu and next-generation COVID-19 vaccines will soon be released.
“Now that we will be spending more time indoors, we need to make doubly sure we are following proper hygiene protocols like handwashing and staying home when sick,” LaGrange said. “It also means respecting those who choose to wear a mask.”
Global News previously reported that influenza vaccines will be available on Oct. 16 with the new Moderna vaccine formulated to target the XBB.1.5 variant likely to be available at around the same time. On Sept. 12, Health Canada approved the use of the Moderna vaccine.
“More information on immunizations against respiratory viruses including influenza and COVID-19 will be available shortly,” the health minister said.
LaGrange said there have been 28 cases of influenza and five lab-confirmed cases of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) since Aug. 28.
“This is consistent activity for this time of the year,” the health minister said in a statement.
The end of August or the beginning of September has typically marked the beginning of flu season for provincial health authorities.
LaGrange also provided an update on the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic in the province.
From Aug. 28 to Sept. 8, there were a total 92 new hospitalizations and three ICU admissions, bringing the total to 417 in hospital and seven in ICU, a 73 per cent increase of COVID hospitalizations from the last reported info.
On July 24 – the last update to the province’s COVID data dashboard – there were only 242 in hospital.
“Sadly, five Albertans died during that period due to COVID-19,” LaGrange said.
LaGrange said the reporting dashboard is being refreshed to include RSV, influenza and COVID-19 data, work that was originally expected to be completed on Aug. 30. The latest data on the province’s influenza statistics dashboard is dated July 22.
“This work is currently underway and will be available in the coming weeks,” LaGrange said.
She said data for the dates between July 24 and Aug. 27 will be available when the new dashboard goes online.
Amid more hospitals continent-wide reinstating masking requirements in the face of increased hospitalizations, the health minister made no mention of any such moves for Alberta hospitals. Acute care COVID-19 outbreaks in Alberta jumped from Sept. 5 to 12, with 146 per cent more healthcare workers and 55 per cent more patients testing positive for COVID.
LaGrange stressed the “collective responsibility” to prevent the spread of airborne viruses like COVID and influenza.
“As a mother and grandmother, I understand the anxiety that comes with sending your children back to school. I want to reassure you that Alberta’s government has the health and well-being of all young Albertans top of mind,” the health minister said.
–with files from Meghan Cobb, Global News
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