Researchers from the Netherlands have invented an innovative brain implant that allows people who are paralyzed to spell messages with their brains. The wireless computer-brain interface allows patients to identify letters by imagining they are using their hands to form them. This technology can be used at home and is unique to the medical field.
Communication systems can offer great help to people with degenerative illnesses like ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), people who have no muscle activity anymore due to diseases such as strokes or people who suffer from trauma-related injuries. These patients are basically “locked up in their body,” according to Nick Ramsey, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at the University Medical Center (UMC) in Utrecht.
Ramsey’s team successfully tested the device on three patients who first had to undergo surgery. By making small holes in the skulls of the patients, the sensor strips are applied in the brain. Afterwards, the patients need brain training to learn how to control the speech computer by moving their fingers in their mind, which gives out a signal. The brain signals are transported through wires in the body and are received by a small transmitter placed in the body below the collarbone. The transmitter amplifies the signals and transmits them wirelessly to the speech computer, after which a letter appears on the screen.
The computer shows four rows of letters and additional functions like “delete” or other words that are already spelled. The system projects the letters one by one, and the patient can make the ‘brain click’ when the right letter is seen.
Although the process of formulating words and sentences with the brain implant is still very slow, it’s a big step forward compared to other communication systems like eye-tracking systems, that are less reliable and need another person to adjust the system. A lot of speech computers work by pushing a button, but for people without any connection between their brain and muscles, this is not possible. The new implant allows these people to communicate without having to use any sort of verbal speech or muscle strength.
The UMC Utrecht Brain Center has researched the possibility of controlling a computer by means of brain activity for many years. They hope to launch a larger, international trial with this new device so they can help more people.