Helping People with Autism Communicate Using Telepathy (BCIs)

James Zhang
5 min readDec 17, 2020

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, roughly 2.2% of Americans have autism, which equates to 5.4 million adults. Most of us reading this article right now know of someone with autism, but we have never really thought about how it must be in their shoes. Hear me out.

Imagine you’re in quarantine, and you have everything you could possibly need to reach out to your friends: phone, laptop, tablet, whatever it may be. Here’s the problem. The “Send” button in all of your apps? Yeah, they’re all glitched out. In fact, 25% of people with autism speak few or no words, so for over a million American adults and 400,000 children, this is the harsh reality of their everyday lives.

And if the magnitude of 1.4 million people doesn’t quite resonate with you, that’s almost equal to the population of Philadelphia. That’s crazy.

I want you to take a moment to imagine something else, though. Imagine if humans could convey speech and text, without actually talking or texting. Most people think that the idea of telepathic communication is super futuristic and only possible in Sci-Fi movies, but that notion is completely wrong. Telepathy could quickly become a reality with the help of a technology known as Brain-Computer Interfaces (or BCIs for short), which connect your brain to a computer.

Today, and Every Day, is Brain Appreciation Day

Our brains are highly complex; in fact, it uses 20% of your body’s energy. But have you ever thought about how much your brain does without you noticing? It controls your senses, memory, movement, and other things. So yeah, you should thank the 86 billion neurons in your brain.

Neurons are specialized cells that can receive and send nerve impulses. When a neuron receives information known as neurotransmitters, it causes an electrical charge in the neuron. If this change is great enough, the neuron relays the information to the next neuron, and so on until the information finally reaches where it needs to be. You can think of it as a gigantic stack of Dominoes, with each one passing the information to the next Domino until it finally reaches the end.

Brains Send Electrical Signals to the Rest of the Body, But How Can BCIs Take Advantage of This?

BCIs can measure this electrical activity, interpret and analyze the patterns, and correspondingly control an artificial device. In a nutshell, BCIs are the link that will make our brains synonymous with machines, or in other words, we will be able to control machines by simply thinking them. For example, texting using just our thoughts, playing games with only our mind, and performing surgery from anywhere on the planet.

To gather the record the electrical activity, we can use electroencephalography, or EEG for short. EEG is a non-invasive method that works by placing electrodes on the scalp to record the brain’s activity.

Electroencephalography (EEG) using electrodes on this woman’s scalp

EEG has high temporal resolution, meaning it gets new, refreshed data very quickly. This is important because human thoughts can change in an instant. For example, if you’re reading a book and all of a sudden a fire alarm goes off, your brain has to make a split-second decision to leave the building. With EEG, we can record that data as it’s happening.

Example data gathered by EEG

In our case, EEG will record the data from the firing neurons that code for speech. The data is then interpreted by a computer into words. So how do we transfer these words to someone else?

Well, we can use something called “transcranial magnetic stimulation” or TMS for short. TMS, another non-invasive method, uses magnetic fields to stimulate the neurons in a brain, but it is currently being used to treat depression when other methods fail.

For our purposes, we can use TMS to stimulate the neurons with the data gathered from the first person, who used EEG. This way, the second person will receive the words that the first person thought of.

Diagram of how TMS is used

Although non-invasive is much cheaper than their invasive counterparts, a major downside is that non-invasive methods usually have low spatial resolution, meaning that it is difficult to decipher exactly which neuron is providing the signals. The solution to this is to either focus EEG and TMS in a smaller, more central area of the brain or use a more precise, invasive BCI, but we’ll stick to the first one in this article.

Specifically, in the first person, we will have to focus EEG on the frontal lobe because the frontal lobe is responsible for expressive language and cognitive skills, such as planning and organizing. On the other hand (or brain, in this context), we will have to focus the TMS on the second person’s parietal lobe, as it is hugely responsible for the processing and interpretation of words.

Diagram of the Brain

Key Takeaways

  1. Brain-Computer Interfaces can connect our brains to computers
  2. EEG can gather data from neurons by placing electrodes on the surface of the scalp.
  3. TMS does not use electrodes on the scalp; instead, it uses a magnetic field to stimulate neurons in a specific part of your brain.
  4. Non-invasive methods have a high temporal resolution, but low spatial resolution.

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James Zhang

CS & Math at University of Maryland, College Park