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The Psychiatrist in the Machine

Software rivals doctors at distinguishing among different kinds of depression and schizophrenia

4 min read
image of brain
Hard Evidence: Psychiatrists want to diagnose patients based on their physiology rather than subjective symptoms. Images of the brain and the electric signals that emanate from it could be key to picking the right treatments for depression and schizophrenia
Illustration: Don Farrall/Getty Images

Psychiatrists make life-altering decisions on the basis of a subjective assessment of a set of symptoms. But many freely admit they have far too little information to answer some critical questions: Is the patient suffering from severe depression, or is this a case of bipolar disorder that hasn’t fully manifested itself yet? Will this schizophrenic patient respond to this drug? Draw the wrong conclusions about a depressed patient and the treatment may send him careening into mania. Make the wrong assessment of a schizophrenic person and you may give him an ineffective drug whose side effects could kill him.

“I make these decisions every day,” says Dr. Gary Hasey, associate professor of psychiatry at McMaster University, in Hamilton, Ont., Canada. “If you make an error, you stand a good chance of making things worse.”

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This Implant Turns Brain Waves Into Words

A brain-computer interface deciphers commands intended for the vocal tract

10 min read
A man using an interface, looking at a screen with words on it.

A paralyzed man who hasn’t spoken in 15 years uses a brain-computer interface that decodes his intended speech, one word at a time.

University of California, San Francisco
Blue

A computer screen shows the question “Would you like some water?” Underneath, three dots blink, followed by words that appear, one at a time: “No I am not thirsty.”

It was brain activity that made those words materialize—the brain of a man who has not spoken for more than 15 years, ever since a stroke damaged the connection between his brain and the rest of his body, leaving him mostly paralyzed. He has used many other technologies to communicate; most recently, he used a pointer attached to his baseball cap to tap out words on a touchscreen, a method that was effective but slow. He volunteered for my research group’s clinical trial at the University of California, San Francisco in hopes of pioneering a faster method. So far, he has used the brain-to-text system only during research sessions, but he wants to help develop the technology into something that people like himself could use in their everyday lives.

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