While many of us heard about the existence of ALS through the ice-bucket challenge two summers ago, the intricacies and details of the disease are not as well known. A diagnosis of A.L.S. (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), or Lou Gehrig’s disease, is devastating for the patient and his/her family. As the disease progresses, the patient will slowly lose their ability to use their muscles, until eventually, they can no longer control their own body movements.
A patient with this disease often would have little hope for improvement. Recently, Hanneke De Bruijne, a doctor of internal medicine from the Netherlands who received a diagnosis of ALS in 2008, received just that: a glimmer of hope. In this article from the NY Times, Steph Yin explains the exciting technology giving this particular patient a new way to communicate. With a brain-computer interface surgically implanted into her brain, she can utilize electrical signals to type out words on a computer screen in front of her. Incredible, right?
Nick Ramsey, one of the researchers and a professor of cognitive neuroscience, has deemed this tool a “remote control in the brain.” Using the system, De Bruijne was able to type two to three words a minute, allowing her to use it in her daily life with remarkable success.
What makes the system so ingenious is that while De Bruijne suffers from locked-in syndrome as a result of her ALS diagnosis, her brain still fires electrical signals when she feels the desire to move. The brain implant computer system capitalizes on this, allowing her to spell out her desires with a “brain click” (thinking about the hand gesture that would click that button).
While there are risks with this surgery, like any invasive procedure, the development of this new software brings hope for many ALS patients who may suffer from even more extreme locked-in syndrome, without even the ability to move their eyes. Utilizing the brain signals that still function fully allows a patient to retain control over some aspect of their life and will hopefully be able to bring light to other patients as this approach is tested further.
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