“Locked-in” Woman Able To Communicate Through Thoughts With The Help Of A New Brain Implant

Brain implants can make paralyzed persons walk again, make blind people see the light for the first time in their life. Although the technology is still in its early stages, the results are positive, all scientists have to do is to further develop implants and wait for the inevitable rise of nanotechnology, allowing implants to shrink in size enough for them to become tiny enough to implant without problems, and powerful enough to allow complete control of your body.

One milestone was passed recently when scientists at the Brain Center of University Medical Center Utrecht in the Netherlands managed to construct an implant that’s easy to use on a day-to-day basis and that can work wirelessly. The patient who got selected for the trial run is a 58-years old woman who suffers from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). She was diagnosed with the disease in 2008; ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease) destroys nerve cells, ultimately leading to a death of neurons responsible for voluntary muscle control.

Over time, the disease can lead to difficulties in speaking, swallowing, and breathing. The woman participating in the study reached the phase where she couldn’t breathe without a ventilator. As Nick Ramsey, one of the scientists who developed the implant says “She is almost completely locked in.”

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Before she received the implant, the woman used an eye-tracking device to communicate, letting her spell out words by choosing the letters on a computer screen with her eyes.

Ramsey’s team placed the implant on the surface of the brain, underneath the skull. The electrodes in the implant read brain activity, sending signals to a small device implanted under the skin, via wire. The device then sends a wireless signal to an external tablet computer. The tablet reads the signal and transforms it into a “click.” The “click” signal can have various uses. For instance, by installing other software, the patient can use a spelling app to communicate or can play games.

The woman volunteered for the implant during last year. Researchers implanted two electrodes on the surface of her brain; one over the part of the brain responsible for the movement of the right hand, and over an area used for counting backward. The woman had to work through many training sessions, which were required in order for her to learn how to control the device.

After some time, the patient learned how to control the device, and she’s still getting better at it. For instance, at the beginning of the learning process she needed 50 seconds to select just one letter; six months later the patient requires only 20 seconds in order to select one letter. Although controlling the implant is slower than using the eye-tracking device, the implant can be used outside. As the woman said, “Now I can communicate outdoors when my eye-track computer doesn’t work.” An important milestone, since previous implants were large, too complex to be used wirelessly, and needed to be recalibrated on a daily basis. The new implant can’t be used for any complex tasks, but can work wirelessly, and as Ramsey says “It’s an extremely simple system, and doesn’t require any fancy computers.”

The system is still in trial phase, but “With the right software, we could use it to, for example, turn off the TV. We could use icons to control appliances in the home. You could conceivably do a lot with a click.” We hope that Ramsey and his colleague’s success in their quest for making a simple, but powerful implant for disabled persons.

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