Completely Paralyzed ALS Patient Uses Brain Implant To Communicate With Words
The patient, a 34-year-old man living in Germany, is the first to be able to communicate without any voluntary muscle movement. He first consented to receive the experimental implant in March 2019, when he had lost the ability to walk or speak but could still communicate with his eyes. Since losing the ability to gaze shortly thereafter, the patient is unable to “talk” to family or caregivers.
To make this possible, a team of neuroscientists from the Wyss Center for Bio and Neuroengineering in Geneva, Switzerland, developed a brain-computer interface with a chip that can be matched to a patient’s motor cortex. The BCI’s 64 electrodes detect impulses that would otherwise be intended to trigger voluntary muscle movements. These pulses are then sent to a computer with a neural signal processor and decoder application, which can translate each pulse into a “yes” or “no” signal.
According to study published in the journal Nature Communications last week, the patient underwent extensive training three months after implantation to learn how to use the BCI system. The patient learned over time to modulate his neural firing rate using audio feedback; once this was accomplished, he could begin to select letters to “go free” and express his thoughts and wishes.
The first thing the patient spelled out was a message of thanks to the project’s lead neurobiologist, Niels Birbaumer. Within weeks, the patient was requesting a beer, listening to Tool, holding his head up in the presence of a company, and watching a Disney movie on Amazon with his son. He even provided suggestions on how to improve the BCI system, asking that scientists add a bank of phrases to choose from and “turn on word recognition.”
“Once when I was there he said, ‘Thank you for everything, sister,'” said co-director of research Dr Ujwal Chaudhary. Recount The Guardian, adding that the patient’s sister is one of his carers. “It was an emotional moment.”
Neuroscientists say this is the first time a paralyzed patient in an “enclosed state” (meaning they have lost all voluntary muscle control) has been able to communicate freely with caregivers or loved ones. The BCI system can be used in the patient’s home via a remote connection with a laptop computer. From now on, the patient is able to form words and sentences at a rate of about one character per minute. “If you have a choice between no communication and one character per minute communication, the choice is very obvious,” Chaudhary said.
The team is currently seeking $500,000 in funding to provide implants to more people with ALS over the next two years.