Experimental brain implant helps woman with ALS communicate
Misha Gajewski, CTVNews.ca
Published Saturday, November 12, 2016 10:00PM EST
Last Updated Saturday, November 12, 2016 10:04PM EST
An experimental device has been successfully implanted in the brain of an ALS patient that allows her to communicate with loved ones long after she lost the ability to speak, according to a new study.
In 2008, Hanneke De Bruijne, a mother of three, was diagnosed with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
As the disease progressed into the late stages, she became fully paralysed and lost the abilities to speak and move. The only way she could communicate was using eye movements and blinks to signal yes or no.
But a team of doctors from the University Medical Centre Utrecht in the Netherlands has developed a brain implant that offered hope for a new means of communication.
The study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine Saturday, reported that researchers were able to implant a device in De Bruijne’s brain that allowed her to type two letters per minute using the brain-computer interface.
“The result is better than we expected,” said Nick Ramsey, the lead researchers told CTV News Channel. “She really enjoys using it. It gives her freedom and she doesn’t want us to switch it off.”
During two separate surgeries, doctors implanted electrodes on the surface of De Bruijne’s brain in the area that controls hand movement. They also implanted a transmitter device in her chest that translates electric signals from her brain into computer commands.
Shortly after the procedures, the doctors trained her on how to use her mind to control a computer. They started with a simple task: moving a computer cursor up and down by thinking about moving her right hand.
De Bruijne worked up to controlling the magnitude and timing of her brain signal by playing a computer game that looked like Pong, the classic Atari game.
Finally, she learned how to select specific items on the screen by making “brain clicks” that allowed her to spell out words.
On day 197, she started using the entire system without help and “clicked” the letter she intended 95 per cent of the time.
While there are other devices that help ALS patients communicate, most notably the eye tracking device, which uses a person’s eye movements to control a computer, they have some drawbacks. The technology requires proper setup and can be difficult to use in harsh lighting conditions, such as outdoors.
But this latest device is the first at-home device that requires little assistance to set up.
“Nobody has really succeeded in getting a system that worked at home,” said Ramsey.
De Bruijne said she is happy with the device and uses it multiple times per week, particularly when she goes outside and her eye tracking device becomes impossible to use.
Tammy Moore, from the ALS Society of Canada, is excited about the potential the new device offers.
“They could actually be choking to death sitting beside you. So knowing that there’s a way they might be able to communicate more easily will be exciting for some people,” she said.
The research team hopes their implant which is still being developed might help other people who suffer from similar locked-in syndromes, and the scientists already have two more recruits for further testing.
With a report from CTV's medical specialist Avis Favaro and producer Elizabeth St. Philip