A Dutch woman with late-stage amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) has been given the gift of communication by researchers who placed an implant inside her skull in order to decode her brain signals and turn them into written words on a screen.
ALS is a degenerative neurological disease whereby the neurons that control muscle movement stop working, leading to paralysis and locked-in-syndrome, as sufferers are totally unable to communicate with the outside world despite remaining mentally aware.
Though there is still no cure for this fatal condition, scientists recently published a study in the New England Journal of Medicine describing how the novel brain implant allowed Hanneke De Bruijne – who was diagnosed with ALS in 2008 – to spell out her thoughts.
The device consists of an electrode placed over the patient’s motor cortex, which controls voluntary movements. The signals picked up by this implant are then wirelessly beamed from a transmitter in her thorax to a nearby computer screen.
Following a period of training, De Bruijne was able to master the art of “mental clicking”, whereby she was able to select letters on the screen simply by imagining bringing her thumb and ring finger of her right hand together. While she initially found this fairly tricky, and was only able to select one letter every 52 seconds, she soon started to get the hang of it, and after 28 weeks of practice could select two to three letters per minute.
In an interview with New Scientist, she explained that she hopes to use this technology for more than just talking, and believes it could help her to become more independent. “I would like to change the television channel and my dream is to be able to drive my wheelchair,” she revealed.
Previously, De Bruijne had been communicating with her carers and loved ones using eye-tracking technology, which follows her gaze in order to generate letters on a screen. However, this technique had been proving somewhat unreliable, as the technology had to be recalibrated whenever light conditions changed, meaning it was not practical to use outdoors.
Yet the brain implant has so far helped her to overcome these issues, significantly increasing her ability to communicate in all environments. “Now I can communicate outdoors when my eye-track computer doesn’t work,” she explains. “I’m more confident and independent now outside.”