As many as 30,000 people in the United States are currently diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS. This debilitating neurological condition is caused by the degeneration of motor nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, which quickly lose their ability to communicate with the muscles in the body. The result is a near-total loss of muscle control, which impacts everything from movement to speech. As the condition progresses, many patients lose the ability to communicate with loved ones – but that could change in the future, thanks to new brain implant research.
Why Scientists Are Exploring Brain Implant Communication
The brain implant research was outlined in an article published in Science earlier this year. In the article, writer Kelly Servick explains that many patients with ALS use an eye-tracking camera to select letters on a screen, allowing them to spell words and communicate with those around them. Frustratingly, eye movements are often compromised later in ALS progression. This leaves individuals with late-stage ALS “locked in” and unable to communicate, though they can still see and hear. With this in mind, a research team at Germany’s University of Tübingen began working with a new research subject: a man in his mid-thirties who had been diagnosed with ALS. Their goal: to insert a brain implant that would allow the man to continue communicating long after he lost control of his eye muscles.
How Brain Implant Communication Works
Per the Science article, the researchers inserted two square electrode arrays into a part of the brain that controls movement. The electrodes seemed ineffective – that is, until about three months into the project, when the team decided to try a new tactic: neurofeedback. In the Science article, Servick describes neurofeedback as a tactic in which a person “attempts to modify their brain signals while getting a real-time measure of whether they are succeeding.”
That might sound convoluted; in reality, it came down to a simple audible tone. The participant’s brain implant produced the tone, which got higher in pitch as the “electrical firing of neurons near the implant sped up.” That allowed the participant to hear, in real time, when he was activating the neurons near the implant. The researchers then asked the participant to change the pitch, making it lower or higher. “On the first day, he could move the tone, and by day 12, he could match it to a target pitch,” Servick writes. “By holding the tone high or low, the man could then indicate “yes” and “no” to groups of letters, and then individual letters.” Eventually, the man crafted dozens of sentences, including one heartwarming sentence directed at his family: “I love my cool son.”
Implications of Initial Research Findings
Though the study participant’s spelling was slow – averaging about one character a minute, per Science – it could have groundbreaking implications for individuals suffering from the isolation that often accompanies late-stage ALS. Researchers continue working with the initial subject, though his ability to spell has reportedly decreased. The researchers conclude that, with time, scaling, and innovation, brain implants could improve communication for thousands of individuals with ALS.
While research into brain implant communication is still relatively new, one thing is certain: the results of the study are a beacon of hope for individuals with ALS and their loved ones.
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