ALS medical research

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) is a disease characterized by damage to nerve cells, resulting in a loss of control over one’s body. This leaves most patients in a paralyzed and uncommunicative state. Most ALS patients rely on eye tracking devices to communicate with others. However, these systems are not very practical as they require daily recalibration by engineers. On top of this, 1 out of every 3 ALS patients will eventually lose the ability to control their eye movements, making these sort of devices useless and leaving patients in a “locked in state.”

The progressive technology

This all changed when a 58 year old woman, Hanneke De Bruijne, who was previously a doctor of internal medicine in the Netherlands, was diagnosed with ALS in 2008. Like many others with the disease, she relied on the eye tracking devices but her new system has drastically increased her quality of life.

She became the first patient to use the newly developed home device that allows her to control a computer device with her thoughts. Two electrodes were surgically implanted into her brain in the motor cortex region. The new brain implants read the electrical signals from the brain and can complete the task for De Bruijne through communicating with another electrode implanted in her chest. This is done through robotic limbs, or a computer. On a tablet attached to her chair she can control the choice of a letter on a screen with her thoughts and can spell out words to communicate with those around her.

Earlier on this year, CNN reported on a new technology that could help decode the thoughts of those with functional brain activity in a completely paralysed body, brought on by a stroke, traumatic injury or ALS.

They reported, it was generally thought that completely locked-in patients were unable to communicate with the outside world, however a new study has shown otherwise.

An international team of scientists has communicated with completely locked-in patients using a non-invasive brain-computer interface system.

The researchers used the system to decode the patients’ thoughts while the patients were asked yes or no questions, according to the study.

To decode what patients were thinking, the system involved functional near-infrared spectroscopy, a tool that can measure blood flow and oxygenation in the brain, and an EEG cap, which can measure electrical activity in the brain.

It is not the first brain computer interface that exists to help paralyzed patients communicate, but near-infrared spectroscopy is the only approach that has successfully enabled communication for CLIS patients.

Whatever the next step in Research, this technology may allow people living in the silence of their own minds a chance to engage in life-improving social interaction.

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