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The Encephalophone Is a Real Instrument You Can Play with Your Mind

Researchers at the University of Washington have found that it may also help treat neurological problems.

Today in Cool Stuff Brought to You by Science, we have the encephalophone—an invention that, despite sounding like a discarded Muppet Show prop, is actually a fascinating new instrument developed for neurological and music research. 

The instrument works by translating brain waves through a synthesizer, essentially allowing users to play it with their minds. To do so, a subject wears a cap fitted with electrodes (à la every dystopian sci-fi flick you've ever seen) that is connected to a computer synthesizer set up. That in turn produces an array of electronic string, piano, and other instrument sounds based on brain patters. Those patterns, of course, can be tricky to wrangle—notes can be set off by facial movements as well as intended thoughts—but, as with mastering any instrument, musicians and researchers say that's half the fun. 

The device was profiled in the Seattle Times this week for its role in an ongoing project led by Dr. Thomas Deuel at the University of Washington. The Swedish neurologist and musician has been working with the institution's DXARTS program, which fosters work between scientists and artists. It's there, while overseeing a lab focused on the relationship between art and neurology, that Deuel and his team have been using the instrument to help treat a local choir director who lost her ability to make music after contracting a viral infection in her brain. 

The idea and various forms of the encephalophone havebeen around as early as the 1940s, but Deuel's invention is the first of its kind where sounds are controlled by brain activity, rather than simply produced as a result of it. That also opens the door for its use as a possible therapy to treat neurological problems brought on by conditions like ALS or a stroke—essentially a kind of music-based rehabilitation, which could particularly benefit those with limited motor abilities. The team is still waiting on approval to conduct clinical testing. 

More broadly, the encephalophone has played a large role in the DXARTS lab's ongoing work exploring music technology and brain-body relationships, including collaborations with New York's JACK quartet and an encephalophone concert in which Deuel played the instrument as part of a jazz ensemble. Though the encephalophone is still in the early days of testing, DXARTS co-founder Juan Pampin said that he hopes it will be far enough along to put on a public concert of "brain performers" as soon as 2018. 

Read more about it here, and watch a video of Deuel playing the instrument with his Encephalophone Ensemble below. 

Andrea Domanick is Noisey's West Coast Editor. Follow her on Twitter.