Parvizi and Chafe developed the brain stethoscope to allow non-experts to monitor brain activity. Until now, the only reliable way to learn what was going on beneath a seizing patient’s skull was with a hard-to-administer electroencephalogram (EEG), which converts brain activity into visible waveforms that require expertise to interpret. By contrast, Parvizi says, anyone can recognize a seizure with the brain stethoscope. Using the tool, doctors and nurses in the ER or ICU (and eventually home caregivers, Parvizi hopes) can hear immediately if an unresponsive patient is seizing or having some other kind of problem.
The stethoscope picks up brain wave activity through a pair of wearable electrodes that detect electrical emissions from the neurons beneath them. It then converts the signals into sounds, selected by Chafe, that are close in tone to the human voice. Combined signals result in “singing” that indicates the presence and intensity of seizure activity. A prototype is currently being tested in Stanford Hospital’s ICU to see if doctors find it usable and worthwhile.
While seizure activity is dramatic enough to recognize through the stethoscope, normal brain activity sounds more mundane. Still, various normal brain states do sound different, says Chafe, who is also a composer and improvisational musician. Playing his cello, he has already jammed with the stethoscope, riffing off his own brain waves.
Audio produced by Molly Bentley and Gordy Slack.
[This article originally appeared in print as "Symphony for a Seizure."]