DEC 08, 2016 06:12 AM PST

A Brain Implant for "Locked In" ALS Patients

Patients who suffer from Amyotropic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS-Lou Gehrig’s) experience the loss of most of their muscle function, eventually needing round the clock care. What some do not realize however is that intellectually these patients are still sharp. The disease affects the ability to move and speak, however it does not cause dementia or other cognitive decline. It’s sometimes referred to “locked in” syndrome. There is no cure for ALS and very little that can be done for patients. A team of researchers at the University Medical Center in Utrecht has come up with a brain implant that could help these patients and the work is groundbreaking.
 
One such patient, Hanneke de Bruijne who lives in the Netherlands, was diagnosed with ALS in 2008. The disease progressed and she is now wheelchair bound and cannot move or speak. She underwent surgery to have a electrodes placed in the motor cortex area of her brain. Those electrodes were then connected to a tiny transmitter placed near her collarbone. The final step is a receiver that is connected to a computer screen with letters.  When Hanneke wants to speak, she watches as the a cursor is moved over the letters, and when it reaches one she wants to use, a hand movement selects that letter. Since moving her hand is impossible, but the brain still sends a signal, the electrodes read that signal, pass it to the transmitter and the letter is selected.
 
The research team working with Hanneke has spent thousands of hours getting the technology just right. The results of their study and how it’s working were published recently in the New England Journal of Medicine. .
 
In a press release, Professor Nick Ramsey, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University Medical Center Utrecht Brain Centre said, " This is a major breakthrough in achieving self-communication in severely crippled patients or those with paralysis caused by ALS, cerebral hemorrhage or trauma. In fact, this patient has been a kind of remote control. Thus she can, without using her muscles, operate a computer voice. "
 
Work on this kind of implant technology has been ongoing at the UMC Brain Centre for years. Previous versions included scalp caps with electrodes and a voice synthesizer as well as wires that were implanted under the skin, but not into the brain directly. The system that Hanneke uses in her home is the only one of its kind in the world. While it has taken months of work, she can type at a rate of two letters per minute which Ramsey hopes can be improved.  As he explained to Euronews, “It’s the fact that you need this special computer software to choose letters. That’s the limiting factor: basically ninety percent of the time she is waiting until the right part of the screen lights up so she can click it. That’s something that you can improve a little bit, but you can’t make it much faster.”

The team hopes to add three more ALS patients to their research so more improvements can be made. Take a look at the video below to see the impact the project has had on this brave patient.
Sources: UMC UtrechtEuronewsCNN 
About the Author
  • I'm a writer living in the Boston area. My interests include cancer research, cardiology and neuroscience. I want to be part of using the Internet and social media to educate professionals and patients in a collaborative environment.
You May Also Like
SEP 04, 2018
Drug Discovery
SEP 04, 2018
Dopamine Provided Targeted Therapy for Neuropsychiatric Disorders
According to a study published in Molecular Psychiatry, research scientists at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons have brought ...
SEP 10, 2018
Videos
SEP 10, 2018
Is The Human Brain Programmable?
The brain is often referred to as a computer. Researchers have tried for years to make artificial intelligence as fast and efficient as the human brain, bu...
SEP 24, 2018
Videos
SEP 24, 2018
The Science of Being Transgender
Gender identity is an issue that some have trouble understanding. It’s not always about male or female, because gender can encompass more than those...
SEP 26, 2018
Neuroscience
SEP 26, 2018
Therapeutic antibodies for Alzheimer's disease: challenges and hopes
Solanezumab: this simple name evokes at the same time one of the greatest hopes and the worst disillusions for Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) patients. Two...
OCT 14, 2018
Genetics & Genomics
OCT 14, 2018
A Gene That can Make Light Touch Feel Painful
Anyone that has had a sunburn knows that even a light brush against the skin, like that from putting on clothes, can become excruciating....
NOV 15, 2018
Drug Discovery
NOV 15, 2018
Treating Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS)
A common condition of the nervous system, Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS) is the overwhelming urge to move the legs. Usually unpleasant symptoms, many RLS pati...
Loading Comments...