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Breath of Life
by Prof. Yirmiyahu Branover

Patients who suffer from locked-in state – a condition of such severe paralysis that they cannot move or communicate with muscles – have new hope, thanks to a system that allows them to control a computer through breathing alone. This system, developed by the Weitzmann Institute in collaboration with the Loewenstein rehabilitation hospital, detects subtle changes in air pressure in the nasal cavity and translates them into electrical signals. Provided that the patient has enough control to be able to master an effective breathing pattern, the system will enable them to use sniffs to navigate a wheelchair, surf the internet and many other skills.

The act of sniffing is a precise motor skills performed by muscles in the face and soft palate. It is controlled by cranial nerves, which emerge directly from the brain without leaving the skull cavity. Even quadriplegics, who are paralyzed from the neck down due to damage to the spinal cord, can still control this area of the body and thus activate the system. Patients in a locked-in state are fully conscious and aware, but unable to communicate or control their muscles. This system will enable them to compose and deliver messages (so far, at a speed of nine letters per minute).

This system can be learned very quickly. Within five or ten minutes of training, patients can learn to move a wheelchair around a complex track, or play computer games, as quickly as a healthy person can play with a mouse or joystick.

The device's developers hope that the same system can be used in a variety of applications, such as serving as a “third hand” for surgeons or pilots. It promises to be much more convenient and easier to use than other brain-machine interfaces existing today.

***

If we set aside for a moment our personal notions of “freedom” versus “locked in,” we come to realize that all of us, in fact, are trapped. In the words of our sages, "We dwell in material homes." The coarse body enclothes and entraps the soul, forcing it to live within the body's limitations.

What is important, though, is that this suffering is soon coming to an end. Not because the soul is leaving the body, G-d forbid, but because the body will soon be undergoing an upgrade -- it will enter into a state of refinement and attain its tremendous spiritual potential.

Very soon, when the Redemption becomes a reality, the physical body will become refined to such an extent that it will experience the Divine directly, with our physical senses. The body will become a huge amplifier, absorbing and reflecting spirituality until we will be able to actually see Divinity with our eyes of flesh. Then we will point and exclaim, "This is our G-d that we hoped for!"

This is also why the body will then be eternal. Its enormous spiritual potential will finally become reality, and those attainments will be ours forever.

Prof. Yirmiyahu Branover is chairman of the Center of Magnetohydrodynamic Studies and Training at Ben-Gurion University.

 

 


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