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Computers Could One Day Help Speech Impairment

In a medical first, researchers harnessed the brain waves of a paralyzed man unable to speak — and turned what he intended to say into sentences on a computer screen.

It will take years of additional research but the study, reported Wednesday, marks an important step toward one day restoring more natural communication for people who can’t talk because of injury or illness.

“Most of us take for granted how easily we communicate through speech,” said Dr. Edward Chang, a neurosurgeon at the University of California, San Francisco, who led the work. “It’s exciting to think we’re at the very beginning of a new chapter, a new field” to ease the devastation of patients who lost that ability.

Today, people who can’t speak or write because of paralysis have very limited ways of communicating. For example, the man in the experiment, who was not identified to protect his privacy, uses a pointer attached to a baseball cap that lets him move his head to touch words or letters on a screen. Other devices can pick up patients’ eye movements. But it’s a frustratingly slow and limited substitution for speech.

Tapping brain signals to work around a disability is a hot field. In recent years, experiments with mind-controlled prosthetics have allowed paralyzed people to shake hands or take a drink using a robotic arm — they imagine moving and those brain signals are relayed through a computer to the artificial limb.

Chang’s team built on that work to develop a “speech neuroprosthetic” — decoding brain waves that normally control the vocal tract, the tiny muscle movements of the lips, jaw, tongue and larynx that form each consonant and vowel.

Volunteering to test the device was a man in his late 30s who 15 years ago suffered a brain-stem stroke that caused widespread paralysis and robbed him of speech. The researchers implanted electrodes on the surface of the man’s brain, over the area that controls speech.

A computer analyzed the patterns when he attempted to say common words such as “water” or “good,” eventually becoming able to differentiate between 50 words that could generate more than 1,000 sentences.

Prompted with such questions as “How are you today?” or “Are you thirsty” the device eventually enabled the man to answer “I am very good” or “No I am not thirsty” — not voicing the words but translating them into text, the team reported in the New England Journal of Medicine.

It takes about three to four seconds for the word to appear on the screen after the man tries to say it, said lead author David Moses, an engineer in Chang’s lab. That’s not nearly as fast as speaking but quicker than tapping out a response.

In an accompanying editorial, Harvard neurologists Leigh Hochberg and Sydney Cash called the work a “pioneering demonstration.”

They suggested improvements but said if the technology pans out it eventually could help people with injuries, strokes or illnesses like Lou Gehrig’s disease whose “brains prepare messages for delivery but those messages are trapped.”

Chang’s lab has spent years mapping the brain activity that leads to speech. First, researchers temporarily placed electrodes in the brains of volunteers undergoing surgery for epilepsy, so they could match brain activity to spoken words.

Only then was it time to try the experiment with someone unable to speak. How did they know the device interpreted his words correctly? They started by having him try to say specific sentences such as, “Please bring my glasses,” rather than answering open-ended questions until the machine translated accurately most of the time.

Next steps include ways to improve the device’s speed, accuracy and vocabulary size — and maybe one day allow a computer-generated voice rather than text on a screen — while testing a small number of additional volunteers.

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The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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Minnesota wildfire doubles in size, creates its own weather

A wildfire in northeastern Minnesota more than doubled in size Tuesday, growing to more than 19,000 acres, after it produced pyrocumulous clouds that generated lightning and even raindrops, fire officials said.

The Greenwood Fire’s growth, most of which happened Monday afternoon, prompted firefighters to leave McDougal Lake, about 80 miles south-southwest of Duluth, officials said. Authorities fear that structures might have been destroyed or damaged.

“We had crews embedded, and as this fire took off, it was quite an effort to communicate with forces on the ground so they could get out,” said federal fire incident spokesman Clark McCreedy.

The pullout was a success, and no injuries were reported. However, downed trees and necessary cleanup mean crews have been unable to assess damage around the lake, McCreedy said.

In addition to the firefighter pullout, 159 dwellings were evacuated Monday, according to an update from the National Wildfire Coordinating Group. Cabins, homes and recreational sites remain under threat, the group said.

Patrick Prochaska, a Minneapolis resident who built a cabin near McDougal Lake in 2012, told NBC affiliate KARE that he watched via security camera as flames mostly bypassed his property Monday, causing minor damage.

“I was feeling very scared,” he said. “At the same time, I could see that it was not doing anything to the house, and it was kind of reassuring.”

The fire in and north of Superior National Forest has mostly performed according to the weather, fire officials said. On Monday, with dry fuel on the ground and temperatures in the high 80s, it was an expanding inferno punctuated by strobes of lightning.

“The winds were drawn into the fire from all directions,” the incident’s fire behavior analyst, Michael Locke, said in a video update Tuesday. “It created what we call pyrocumulous clouds. And really high in the atmosphere … you’d see a thunderstorm, and in fact they went high enough to produce a few sprinkles of rain and even some lightning.”

Temperatures dipped into the mid-70s Tuesday, and the blaze mellowed. “The real story was cloud cover and cooler temperatures,” McCreedy said.

More of the same, and possibly rain, was in the forecast, giving officials hope that they might be able to close the book on an unusually active and dry fire season in Minnesota.

Experts have said climate change has set the stage for extreme weather, including an increase in the frequency and intensity of wildfires in the Northern Hemisphere.

Firefighters — 426 were assigned to the Greenwood event — have been confronted with “prolonged, severe drought,” making parts of Minnesota look like the fire-prone West this summer, McCreedy said.

The Greenwood Fire, which was detected Aug. 15, is believed to have been sparked by lightning.

So far, firefighters have scored no containment, and areas including McDougal Lake, Sand Lake and the Highway 2 corridor have been under mandatory evacuation orders. The federal Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness was closed Saturday “due to active and increasing fire activity, extreme drought, limited resources,” the National Forest Service said in a notice.

Officials set a goal of Sept. 1 for full containment.

“We’re probably going to get more of that moderating weather for the rest of the week,” McCreedy said. “That opens the door for fire crews to make progress on the ground.”

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Hiker survives grizzly bear attack at Denali National Park

A tourist from Indiana was attacked and injured by a grizzly bear at Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska on Monday night, park officials said.

The 55-year-old tourist, whose name was not released, was hiking alone in dense fog in the Thoroughfare Pass area when a mother bear and multiple cubs charged him from nearby bushes, the National Park Service said in a statement Tuesday.

He had puncture wounds to a calf, his left ribs and his left shoulder, the agency said.

The victim used bear spray that might have cut the attack short, the park service indicated. He walked 1.5 miles to a visitor’s center where “medical personnel” vacationing at Denali treated him as a park bus driver called 911, it said.

The hiker was taken to a medical center near the park before he was transferred to Fairbanks Memorial Hospital, about 120 miles away, park officials said. He was stabilized at the Fairbanks hospital, they said.

“Due to the apparent defensive nature of this attack, there are no plans to locate the bear involved,” the park service said. “Female bears with cubs are naturally defensive of their young, especially when surprised. There is no indication that this bear is unusually dangerous.”

Grizzly bears are federally protected as a threatened species in the lower 48 states. According to the National Wildlife Federation, fewer than 1,500 grizzlies are left in the lower 48, but they thrive, comparatively, in Alaska, where they have a population of about 31,000.

The backcountry area of the attack is closed for one week as a precaution, the park service said.

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House passes John Lewis voting rights bill, sends measure to Senate for tougher fight

House Democrats on Tuesday passed a sweeping voting rights bill named after Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., the late civil rights icon.

The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act was approved 219-212. All Republicans voted against the legislation.

The bill is part of congressional Democrats’ broader campaign to strengthen voting laws at the federal level to fight restrictive voting laws passed in Republican-led states, such as Texas and Georgia. However, it faces steep opposition in the Senate, where Democrats hold a wafer-thin majority.

The House returned from its recess this week to take up the bipartisan infrastructure bill and a resolution for Democrats’ $3.5 trillion budget package, which includes funding for much of President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda. The procedural motion used to pass the multitrillion-dollar resolution paved the way for the House to vote on the voting rights bill, which was re-introduced last week by Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala.

The legislation would require states with recent histories of discrimination to get federal “preclearance” to change their voting laws, which directly addresses the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder. The ruling gutted the preclearance system in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which civil rights advocates argue was successful in blocking proposed voting restrictions in states and localities with histories of racial discrimination.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement last week that Congress had “not only an ironclad Constitutional mandate, but a moral responsibility” to pass the bill.

Shortly before its passage, Pelosi said on the House floor that the bill would honor Lewis’ legacy.

“We should have the right to vote and shouldn’t be diminished by anyone. It is unpatriotic to undermine the ability of people who have a right to vote, who have access to the polls,” she said. “As John knew, this precious pillar of our democracy is under attack from one of the worst voter suppression campaigns since Jim Crow.”

It isn’t the first time House Democrats have tackled election law. In March, House Democrats passed the For the People Act, a sweeping bill that seeks to change campaign finance, voting and ethics laws.

The bill would expand access to the ballot box by creating automatic voter registration across the country by registering eligible voters whenever they interact with government agencies, restoring the voting rights of the formerly incarcerated, expanding early voting and modernizing the country’s voting systems.

However, Senate Republicans filibustered the voting rights legislation in June, and the vote to advance an amended version of the For the People Act split along party lines 50-50, short of the 60 votes needed. All Democratic-aligned senators voted to begin debate, and Republicans unanimously voted to block the bill.

Passage of the voting measure was the final vote of the week for the House, whose members are leaving Washington and won’t return until Sept. 20.

Haley Talbot contributed.

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