A team of Dutch medical specialists and computer engineers was successful in devising a brain implant that allows patients with locked-in syndrome to communicate.
Hailed as being a major breakthrough, the high-tech brain implant could soon replace the traditional eye-tracking software, currently used to allow patients suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease to communicate with their caretakers.
The brain implant transforms the patient’s bioelectrical signals into digital signals, which are then processed and interpreted by a computer.
A brain-computer interface isn’t something new. In fact, for the past 20 years, researchers have strived to come up with a way that allows the human brain to interface with a machine. To some extent, these experiments were successful, but something limited in capabilities.
Right now, the most advanced computer can process biological information coming from approximately 100,000 neurons. Still, the fill picture is hard to decode, and the signal is somewhat blurry.
Such attempts at bridging the gap between man and machine were pivotal in helping Hanneke De Bruijne, the receipt of the brain implant, to communicate.
According to the team of researchers, De Bruijne can use the implant to spell two letters per minute. However, with additional training, the 58-year old patient from Denmark could learn how to spell entire words.
Nick Ramsey, a neuroscientist, and one of the study’s co-authors explained how this high-tech brain implant works.
Back in 2008, the Danish woman was diagnosed with ALS. At that time, De Bruijne was in a locked-in state and could communicate with other by blinking. Ramsey said that the fact that De Bruijne retained her blinking ability was a crucial aspect since it was a good way to verify via eye-tracking whether the brain implant worked or not.
In 2015, a team of neurosurgeon implanted four electrode strips into her motor cortex, a brain region associated with right-hand movement. In addition to the electrode strips, the surgeons implanted a signal amplifier and a transmitter beneath the patient’s collarbone.
Nick Ramsey explains that the electrode strips are calibrated in order to pick up brain signals associated with limb movement. The strips then send these signals to the amplifier, which sends them to the transmitter and ultimately to a Microsoft Surface Pro 4 tablet.
So, whenever De Bruijne tries to move her right hand, the brain implant picks up these signals, relays them to the tablet which interprets them as typing instructions.
Image source: Vimeo