People who are completely paralyzed, without any ability to walk, talk, or blink, may one day be able to communicate with the aid of microchips implanted in their brains, preliminary test results suggest.
Scientists tested a pair of brain microchips in a man in his thirties who has advanced amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), often referred to as Lou Gehrig’s disease — a progressive neurodegenerative disease in which people lose the ability to move and talk. The man has locked-in syndrome, also known as pseudocoma. He’s conscious and can think and reason but can’t control his muscles to use traditional adaptive communication devices.
Learning to Communicate Over 2 Years
The man had a pair of microchips implanted in his brain to detect communication signals and transmit the data to a computer for processing. Over two years, the man gradually learned to communicate letters, words, and sentences using this system, according to preliminary study results reported in Nature Communications.
“This study answers a long-standing question about whether people with complete locked-in syndrome — who have lost all voluntary muscle control, including movement of the eyes or mouth — also lose the ability of their brain to generate commands for communication,” said a coauthor of the study, Jonas Zimmermann, PhD, a senior neuroscientist at the Wyss Center in Geneva, Switzerland.
While earlier research has documented successful communication in patients with paralysis who use a brain implant for communication, these older systems relied on patients’ ability to blink their eyes or make slight voluntary movements, Dr. Zimmermann said in a statement.
“To our knowledge, ours is the first study to achieve communication by someone who has no remaining voluntary movement and hence for whom the brain-computer interface is now the sole means of communication.”
Patient’s Brain Activity Translated by Computer
Two microelectrode devices were implanted in the man’s motor cortex, the region of the brain responsible for generating signals that direct movement. Over time, the man learned to generate brain activity by attempting different movements. Even though he couldn’t physically move his body, the implant picked up these signals in his brain to help him communicate.
This communication is live, but happens very slowly.
The computer has a speller program that reads the letters of the alphabet aloud. Then the implant interprets signals in the brain for “yes” or “no” in response to each letter, working through the alphabet to let the man choose the next letter for the word he wants to communicate.
It took the man more than 100 days to master the process of using this system to select letters and spell out words. As he improved, it still took him more than a minute on average to produce each letter.
By the end of the study period, the man had uttered sentences to thank his doctors. He was able to ask for some of his favorite foods (“goulash soup and sweet pea soup”), make a music request (“I would like to listen to the album by Tool loud”), and communicate that he loved his “cool son.”