A ‘Locked-In’ Woman Can Now Use Her Thoughts to Communicate

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Photo: Eirin Takeuch /EyeEm/Getty Images

There is good in this world yet: Neuroscientists from the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands report that a “locked in” woman is now able to communicate, albeit slowly, using newly developed technology — a brain implant she controls with her thoughts. It’s not the first time such a device has been used for a patient with paralysis, but it is the first time something like this has been made available for use at home, “without the need for doctors and engineers to recalibrate the device,” reports New Scientist. She can even use it outside.

The term “locked in” means paralysis at its extreme, used to describe patients who have lost the ability to move their bodies, but whose minds are still intact. They are, in a very real sense, locked inside themselves.

This woman — who is 58 and wishes to stay anonymous except for her initials, HB — was diagnosed in 2008 with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. ALS is a neurodegenerative disease, and as it progresses, it destroys patients’ ability to control voluntary muscle movement. Eventually, muscle function may weaken in the chest and diaphragm, and many patients must use a ventilator to breathe.

HB is not fully “locked in,” but she’s close, requiring the use of a ventilator. She had previously been communicating using an eye-tracking device, a computer screen interface she used to spell out words by landing her gaze on a letter, one at a time. But this method may not have worked forever; one in three ALS patients lose muscle control in their eyes, too. And so last year, she volunteered to work with the researchers at the University of Utrecht, including Nick Ramsey, who revealed his team’s findings in a presentation at the annual Society for Neuroscience meeting, which is being held this week in San Diego.

Here’s more on how the implant works:

[The] device uses electrodes placed on the surface of the brain, just underneath the skull. … When brain activity is recorded by the electrode, a signal is fed through a wire to a small device, which can be implanted under the skin of the chest, like a pacemaker. This device then wirelessly sends a signal to an external computer tablet, which can transform it into a simple “click.”

One of those electrodes is placed over the region of the brain associated with movement of the right hand. And so HB controls the device with her thoughts, imagining moving her right hand to click the screen; it’s kind of like the progress other scientists have made with thought-controlled robotic arms, only without the robotic arm.

It took some practice to get the hang of it, but within six months she had progressed from games of Pong and whack-a-mole to spelling words and forming sentences. It’s slow going — it takes her 20 seconds to “click” a single letter — but she’s gotten faster; at first it took 50 seconds to select each letter. Her dream: that she might one day be able to use it to control her wheelchair.