Brain implant device allows paralyzed individual to communicate using his thoughts

At BML Technology we continuously monitor the healthcare technology and digital health space to stay on top of the latest trends and discoveries taking place to improve patient outcomes. In some cases these affect our consultancy clients and the digital health ecosystem where we operate. For the most part we are simply passionate about medtech and need to know what is transpiring.

We recently covered a spinal implant device developed in Switzerland that allows completely paralysed individuals with severed spines to walk again. This was a first in medical science and could portend a future where paralysis caused by spinal injury is a thing of the past.

Today we are covering an equally innovative medical technology that has the potential to revolutionize the ability to communicate for fully paralyzed individuals through the usage of brain implants.

Researchers at the Wyss Center for Bio and Neuroengineering in Geneva Switzerland, in collaboration with the University of Tübingen in Germany, state that one of their patients, a man who is paralyzed by Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, was able to communicate with them by registering and measuring his brain’s neural signals with two 64 microelectrode arrays implanted in the supplementary and primary motor cortex areas of his brain.

The study was published in the journal Nature Communications.

See how the brain implant solution developed at Wyss Center is allowing a paralyzed individual with ALS to communicate using his thoughts

The individual in the study is a man in his 30’s with a fast progressing form of ALS that has rendered him completely paralyzed. In milder forms of the disease ALS patients can communicate by formulating sentences with the usage of their mouth or eye movements to indicate Yes or No answers to individual letters, over time as the condition worsens patients can lose the ability to accomplish even that. In the case of completely paralyzed individuals unable to move any muscles in what is referred to as a “completely locked-in state” (CLIS) there was no way to communicate, until now that is, according to the study.

The process necessary to get to a level where communication could take place was by no means straightforward and involved the researchers trying many different techniques generating no positive results for many months. The breakthrough came when the researchers switched to a real-time neurofeedback response system to the patient from their initial method to attempt to generate specific brain signals.

The successful process works as follows: Neuronal activity is registered by the implanted microelectrodes and transmitted to an amplifier located outside the patient’s skull. The signals are then decoded by an AI machine learning model in real time and mapped to mean either Yes or No. To form words and sentences the patient interacts with a speller program and through an auditory neurofeedback process is able to choose Yes or No to accept or reject a letter. In this manner the patient can formulate complete words and sentences.

“This study answers a long-standing question about whether people with complete locked-in syndrome (CLIS) – who have lost all voluntary muscle control, including movement of the eyes or mouth – also lose the ability of their brain to generate commands for communication,” said Jonas Zimmermann, PhD, Senior Neuroscientist at the Wyss Center in Geneva. “Successful communication has previously been demonstrated with BCIs in individuals with paralysis. But, to our knowledge, ours is the first study to achieve communication by someone who has no remaining voluntary movement and hence for whom the BCI is now the sole means of communication.”

Neural data are decoded and analyzed in real time

Some researchers expressed the opinion that although we can feel optimistic due to the results more work needs to be done since this study is comprised of just one patient. And the process of training both the patient and the software to reach a degree of proficiency in the process to where communication can be established is not be easy and may not even be possible to replicate with other patients.

Regardless of these reservations the researchers believe that this case study provides evidence that brain-based volitional communication is possible even in a completely locked-in state. We will be following these developments with interest as BML is supportive of medical technologies that improve patient outcomes and quality of life.

About BML Technology 

BML Technology understands digital health. At the intersection of medical technology, clinical research and patient-centric healthcare BML drives the mainstream adoption of digital technology in healthcare. Offering a full range of services to the digital health ecosystem BML manages the complex stakeholder interactions necessary to get digital health solutions to market and gain adoption.

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BML Technology

At the intersection of medical technology, clinical research and patient-centric health care, we manage the complex stakeholder interactions necessary to get digital health solutions to market and gain adoption.