A new brain implant, described by research in Saturday’s edition of The New England Journal of Medicine, allows a late-stage patient with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, to communicate using brain signals to type out words. The researchers used a brain-computer interface to pick up electrical signals from the patient’s brain that are used to type out words.
“It’s like a remote control in the brain,” said one of the researchers, Nick Ramsey, who is a professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University Medical Center Utrecht in the Netherlands. Their patient was able to independently control the computer typing software to spell two to three words per minutes, seven months after surgery.
Their patient was a doctor of internal medicine from the Netherlands, Hanneke De Bruijne, who was diagnosed amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also called A.L.S., or Lou Gehrig’s disease, in 2008. The condition left De Bruijne with locked-in syndrome, in which she is cognitively aware, but unable to move most voluntary muscles, and is unable to speak. She is able to move her eyes however, and also has used a device that lets her select letters or items on a computer screen by tracking her eye movements, allowing her spell between five and ten letters a minute.
The eye tracking device has one major limitation, in that it must be recalibrated every time the light levels change wherever she is. This presents a particular problem for using the device outdoors. De Bruijne would avoid going outside, out of concern she would not be able to communicate urgent needs in a timely manner, according to Ramsey.
“That’s where we found our system really kicks in,” he said. “With it, she feels confident she can spell words for immediate needs, like an itch or saliva building up, or more urgent things, like her respirator giving her problems.”
Dr. Ramsey stated that he wants to see whether the brain implant system can help people who are entirely locked in, who have lost the ability to move their eyes and use eye tracking as an alternative.
Dr. Jonathan R. Wolpaw, the director of the National Center for Adaptive Neurotechnologies in Albany, noted “This is the world’s first totally implanted brain-computer interface system that someone has used in her daily life with some success.”
The study was partially funded by the medical technology company Medtronic, which also provided the components for the brain implant. One of the authors of the paper is also a Medtronic employee, but the report specifically notes that “he was not involved in the interpretation of the results.”