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Hands-free instrument could bring music back to stroke patients

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Dr. Thomas Deuel, plays an encephalophone with a jaza group. He sits mostly still in a chair with electrodes attached and a laptop computer at his side. Projected on a giant screen behind the stage, the audience can see his brain waves at work, making the encephalophone play. (Photo: courtesy Alibi Pictures)

SEATTLE -- Stroke patients could soon test a new therapy in Seattle that will create music through thought. A local doctor invented the instrument that is hands-free and controlled by brain waves.

The instrument, dubbed the encephalophone, was recently center stage at a concert in Seattle. A jazz ensemble accompanied the encephalophone, and as you would expect, there was plenty of movement from the musicians. Fingers swept across a keyboard and pressed buttons on a horn. But Dr. Thomas Deuel, who played the encephalophone, sat mostly still in a chair with electrodes attached and a laptop computer at his side. Projected on a giant screen behind the stage, the audience could see his brain waves at work, making the encephalophone play.


"Patients need to think about moving their arm. They don't have to actually move their arm," Deuel said. "They can think about it, and it will turn on and off this signal. We take that signal and turn it into a pitch on a musical scale."

The device is the marriage of Deuel's two passions and professions. He's both a neurologist at Swedish Medical Center and a music professor at the University of Washington. The encephalophone started as an arts project, but Deuell realized it could have a medical use.

"I thought, you know, this would be a great device to help enable people who lost the ability to play music or sing because of a motor disability from stroke, ALS or spinal cord injury," he said. "It would allow them to play music again without having to move. I thought it would be a nice way to bring things back around to helping some of my patients."


Losing music to disease or injury can be devastating.

"I saw a music teacher who was a drummer who had a stroke, and he was no longer able to play. He not only lost his motor ability to play the drums, but he lost some of his rhythm capabilities. It was incredibly frustrating for him. I thought, I could use my device to allow him to play again."

Deuel had 15 healthy people try the encephalophone to see if they could use it and enjoy it. He's now awaiting approval to start a small clinical trial at Swedish Medical Center to test stroke patients, or others with movement limitations. He'll start with 15 patients and will expand if it's successful.

He's optimistic patients will not only enjoy making music, but they'll also have physical therapy benefits. "Everyone moves a little with music. It activates certain parts of the brain that are important for movement," Deuel said. "It is a means of speaking. Music is a means of emotional expression."


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