ALS Patient Controls Speech Computer with Mind

Electrodes placed into a paralyzed patient’s brain enabled her to operate a speech computer wirelessly.

Telekinesis may not just be for superheroes.

An amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) patient who is unable to speak or move due to paralysis was enabled by a surgical procedure to operate a speech computer with her mind, which allows her to communicate with family, friends, and caregivers.

The UMC Utrecht Brain Center has spent many years researching whether controlling a computer through electrodes that capture brain activity could be a possibility. In a new study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers accomplished this goal in one woman suffering from ALS.

“This is a major breakthrough in achieving autonomous communication among severely paralyzed patients whose paralysis is caused by either ALS, a cerebral hemorrhage, or trauma,” said researcher Nick Ramsey. “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.”

For the procedure, the patient underwent a surgery where electrodes were placed on her brain through tiny holes in the skull. Next, a small transmitter was placed in her body below her collarbone.

The transmitter is able to receive signals from the electrodes via subcutaneous wires that amplifies and wirelessly transmits them.

To operate the speech computer, the patient moves her fingers in her mind, according to the study. This changes the brain signal under the electrodes, which is then converted into a mouse click, actuating the speech computer.

Shortly after the surgery, the patient and researchers worked together to find the right settings for the device, along with an optimal method to control her brain activity. According to the study, it started with a “simple” game to practice the art of clicking.

Once the patient was able to master the clicking process, the focus switched to the speech computer. Now, she can use the computer without help from the research team.

The process works by allowing the patient to see the alphabet on a screen in front of her. The screen also holds some additional functions, such as deleting a letter or a word.There is also a function in which the patient can choose words based on the letters she has already spelled, similar to the predictive text available on iPhones.

On the screen, the letters light up one by one, allowing the patient to select a letter by influencing the mouse click with her brain at the right moment. The words are composed letter-by-letter, and are then spoken by the speech computer.

If the implant is proven a success in 3 people, researchers hope to launch a larger, international trial.

“We hope that these results will stimulate research into more advanced implants, so that someday not only people with communication problems, but also people with paraplegia, for example, can be helped,” Ramsey said.