Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) is a disease characterized by damage to nerve cells, resulting in a loss of control over one’s body. This leaves most patients in a paralyzed and uncommunicative state. Most ALS patients rely on eye tracking devices to communicate with others. However, these systems are not very practical as they require daily recalibration by engineers. On top of this, 1 out of 3 ALS patients will eventually lose the ability to control their eye movements, making these sort of devices useless and leaving patients in a "locked in state".
The progressive technology
This all changed with Hanneke De Bruijne, a 58-year-old woman who was previously a doctor of internal medicine in the Netherlands. Diagnosed with ALS in 2008, like many others with the disease, De Bruijne previously relied on these eye tracking devices but her new system has drastically increased her quality of life. After two years, De Bruijne was “almost completely locked in” according to Nick Ramsey at the Brain Center of University Medical Center Utrecht in the Netherlands, even relying on a ventilator to control her breathing.
She became the first patient to use a newly developed home device that allows her to control a computer device with her thoughts. Two electrodes were surgically implanted into De Bruijne’s brain in the motor cortex region. The new brain implants read the electrical signals from the brain and can complete the tasks for De Bruijne through communicating with another electrode implanted into De Bruijne’s chest. This is done through robotic limbs, or a computer. On a tablet attached to her chair she can control the choice of a letter on a screen with her thoughts and can spell out words to communicate with those around her.
Right now the process is a little slow, about 2-3 words a minute, but Ramsey predicts that by adding more electrodes he could speed up the process. By adding 30-60 more electrodes, he can incorporate a form of sign language, which would be a quick and easy way to interpret De Bruijne’s thoughts.
As the first at home communication device for ALS, this system shines a very bright light on the quality of life for ALS patients. No longer requiring the constant input of medical professionals and engineers, patients can live a more normal and peaceful life. They can train their brains to be able to communicate easier with their loved ones and caregivers. In its primitive stages, this system shows so much potential. It will be amazing to see how it can advance even further!