A new brain-computer interface allowed ALS patients to “talk” as the completely paralyzed people responded to yes or no questions.
The new technology specifically targets “completely locked-in syndrome” patients. This was onset by ALS or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. “Locked-in syndrome” ALS patients suffer from a nearly complete paralysis. Almost all of their voluntary body muscles are locked.
They cannot move or make facial expressions. Contrary to other cases, they also cannot move their eyes. Tracking the eye movement is a widely-used communications technique. For years now, doctors and scientists have been looking for a new method.
And a team of Swiss researchers may have just found it. Studies on the matter were conducted at the Wyss Center for Bio and Neuroengineering. This is based in Geneva, Switzerland. The research team was led by Ujwal Chaudhary. He is a University of Tubingen in Germany Professor.
Study results were released earlier this week. They were published in the PLOS Biology journal. Available online since January 31, the paper was titled as follows. “Brain-Computer Interface-Based Communication in the Completely Locked-In State”.
The study based its results on actual field tests. Four ALS patients were involved. They all suffer from the locked-in syndrome. Each participant was fitted with a non-invasive brain-computer interface. This is basically a cap. It sports sensors and a number of intertwined wires.
The cap uses NIRS and EEG. Its purpose is to measure the brain’s electrical activity. And also its blood oxygenation levels. NIRS is a near-infrared spectroscopy. EEG is the electroencephalography.
Involved researchers explained that the ALS patients were offered a training. Then, they began asking yes or no questions. Initially, these were simple questions. Their answers were already known. Through them, they could test the interface’s efficiency.
For example, a question verified the patient’s name. Or their native city. The questions were repeated over a longer period of time. And in most cases, the answers stayed the same. The research noted the following fact. Brain oxygen levels differ according to the answer.
A “yes” registered different levels when compared to a “no”. Or to a false answer. The interface was adapted to fit these changes. Over a matter of months, the patients were able to respond with their own thoughts. And even answer new questions. In around 70 percent of the cases, the answers were correct.
The researchers were quite surprised by the study results. Each patient was constantly asked if they were happy. And they received a consistent response. “Yes.” This seems to contradict most widespread beliefs.
Niels Birbaumer also offered some details. He is part of the Wyss Centre and also a study co-author. According to his statement, the results were quite striking. They reportedly overturned his personal theory. Previously, Birbaumer did not believe that completely “locked-in” patients were able to communicate.
But he was proven wrong by the tests. All four ALS patients were able to offer answers. They used their thoughts alone in answering the personal questions.
The study participants also changed the preconceived idea. They offered an opinion on their quality of life. Most considered it to be acceptable. At least as long as they received a satisfactory home care. And the locked-in ALS patients also revealed themselves as being happy.
Presently, the research team is looking to expand their study. They will be trying to develop the brain-computer interface. In the future, the patients may be able to select letters or words. Through them, the locked-in patients could become able to communicate more freely.
Research also hopes to transform the interface. In the future, it may come to be used with other affections as well. And it may also turn into an implantation device. As it is, the technology could come to have a wider application. And it could have a huge impact on its patients’ day-to-day lives.
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