Completely paralysed woman communicates again with help of brain implant

15 November 2016

A female patient with ALS, who is unable to move or speak, has been given a new way to communicate with the world around her. A team of researchers at the University Medical Centre Utrecht in the Netherlands had implanted a device in the 58-year-old woman's brain, that lets her control a speech computer with her brain signals. According to professor of cognitive science, Nick Ramsey, it was the first time such a device of the kind had been used at home.

"This is a major breakthrough in achieving autonomous communication among severely paralysed patients whose paralysis is caused by either ALS, a cerebral haemorrhage or trauma," he said in a statement. "In effect, this patient has had a kind of remote control placed in her head, which enables her to operate a speech computer without the use of her muscles."

To initiate operation of the speech computer, the patient thinks about moving her fingers. The electrodes implanted in her brain translate the brain activity associated with the thought into signals which are then transmitted to the computer wirelessly by a transmitter implanted under her collarbone. The transmitter is connected to the electrodes via wires that run under her skin. The signals are then interpreted by the computer, allowing the woman to compose words, one letter at a time.

According to Vikash Gilja, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of California San Diego, who was not connected with the research, the system used by the Ramsey team "does not push the envelope of performance, but that was not the purpose of the study. The news here is they have developed a system they fitted to one individual over a long time period and that individual was able to use it on their own without a lot of technical support."

"Those are major accomplishments," he told Reuters Health by phone. "It takes us a big step closer to real worldwide-scale clinical translation of an implanted brain-machine interface."

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