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Brain Implant Helps Paralyzed ALS Patient Communicate With Caregivers Without Assistance

An implantable computer-brain interface has allowed a paralyzed woman with late-stage ALS, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, to communicate without assistance.

What is ALS?

ALS is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that can affects the nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. Also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, the condition leads to dysfunction of the nerves that control muscle movement and affects an estimated 30,000 Americans.

Brain Implant For Late-Stage ALS Patient

Doctors in the Netherland reported in a new study that a high-tech implant enabled "locked-in" patient Hanneke De Bruijne to communicate with others by spelling out messages at a rate of two letters per minute.

The 58-year-old has been robbed of her ability to speak or move her muscles because of her condition albeit her mind is intact. The experimental implant allowed her to type words and convey her thoughts without assistance.

Study researcher Nick Ramsey, from the University Medical Center Utrecht in the Netherlands explained that the brain implant allows the patient to remote-control a computer with her brain, which enables her to convey her needs to her caregivers.

The ability to make an independent call for help is critical for the patient in case her ventilator stops working or saliva builds up.

With the cutting-edge setup, the woman, who used to rely on eye movements and blinks prior to the installation of the system, can spell letter by letter by making brain-clicks with which she would select letters on a keyboard shown on a computer screen.

"By attempting to move her hand and by using software that automatically extracted electrocortical signal features, the patient was able to control commercial communication software that could type, albeit at a slow rate," Ramsey and colleagues wrote in their study.

"The patient was able to use the system to replace an eye tracker when lighting conditions made the eye tracker impossible to use."

Ramsey's team also reported of the patient's high level of satisfaction with the device. The patient used the device multiple times in a week.

System For Paralyzed People Who Can Still Think

Researchers hope that the system would eventually help people who can't move, particularly those whose brains are still capable of thinking and communicating, such as some stroke survivors.

"We've built a system that's reliable and autonomous that works at home without any extra help. There's not a single system that even comes close to this," Ramsey said.

The research was published in the New England Journal of Medicine on Nov. 12.

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