Brain implant shows promise for paralyzed patients unable to communicate.
A group of researchers have successfully implanted a brain-computer interface into a woman suffering from late-stage amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) that allows her to use the software to type 2-3 words per minute and communicate with her doctors, according to an article in the New York Times.
The patient with the condition, also known as Lou Gherig’s disease, was diagnosed back in 2008, when the neurons that control her voluntary muscles began to die. She eventually fell into a condition called locked-in syndrome, in which she is aware of her surroundings, but almost all of her voluntary muscles, except her eyes, are paralyzed and she is unable to speak.
The process involved implanting a system into her brain that recognizes the electrical signals generated by the brain, and uses software the allow her to type words. Dr. Nick Ramsey, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University Medical Center Utrecht in the Netherlands, said the device was like a remote control in the brain.
“This is the world’s first totally implanted brain-computer interface system that someone has used in her daily life with some success,” according to Dr. Jonathan R. Wolpaw. Wolpaw is the director of the National Center for Adaptive Neurotechnologies in Albany.
The new implant is not the only way the patient, Hanneke De Bruijne, a doctor of internal medicine from the Netherlands, has of communicating, however. For a few years now, she had been using a device that tracks her eye movements and allows her to select items on a computer screen. By using this device, she has been able to spell from five to 10 letters a minute.
In addition to being slow for communication purposes, the eye-tracking device needs to be re-calibrated whenever the surrounding light changes, making the device difficult to use when outdoors.
“That’s where we found our system really kicks in,” says Dr. Ramsey. “With it, she feels confident she can spell words for immediate needs, like an itch or saliva building up, or more urgent things, like her respirator giving her problems.”
Skeptics are concerned over the necessary surgery to implant the device, but Dr. Ramsey says an implanted device provides a stronger, more reliable signal due to its proximity to the brain, and can stay in place and function all the time.
Ramsey adds he would like to see if the system could be used by someone in a total locked-in state, in which they cannot even move their eyes, and other communication options are not available.