Imagine being able to think, taste, touch and feel, but being completely unable to move or communicate. “Locked-in syndrome” is the fate of people with Lou Gehrig’s Disease, ALS and other severe paralysis. But a new device developed by a research team led by a UVA psychology professor offers some hope.

Dennis Proffitt, director of the Cognitive Science Program at UVA, working with colleagues at Georgia Tech, a company called Archinoetics and a National Science Foundation grant, has created a unique brain-computer interface that allows locked-in patients to use their thoughts to answer simple yes or no questions.

Science has long known that different parts of the brain control certain activities. For example, the back of the brain responds to visual imagery and the frontal lobe is active when one tries to focus attention on something.

Proffitt’s device measures changes in blood volume and oxygenation to assess activity in a specific part of the brain where verbal working memory occurs. Subjects are asked to count in their head when they want to activate the verbal working memory for a “yes” response. When they want to say “no,” they think of clouds or something nonsensical such as “la, la, la.”

Proffitt stresses that he can’t read a subject’s mind. The device can only note where in the brain certain types of activity take place.

“At this time the system is primitive, but it’s a start,” he says. “Right now it’s an on/off switch that allows locked-in people to answer yes/no questions.”