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Brain Implant Allows ALS Patient To Type Out Letters Using Thoughts

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Researchers have found a way to let a patient with late-stage amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease) communicate using brain signals.

An implant with a computer surface was implanted in the unidentified woman’s head, which let her translate a “brain click” into a mouse click. This system let the patient spell out what she wanted to say by using the mouse to click on letters of the alphabet.

Nick Ramsey, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University Medical Center Utrecht and senior author on the study, says the patient was very happy about the implant and its results, even if it is experimental, according to ABC News.

ALS is a degenerative disease wherein patients slowly lose their abilities to speak and move, leading to complete paralysis. This does not, however, affect cognitive function. In the case of the 58-year-old woman, she was already in the “locked in” stage, able to move only her eyes but with her brain function unimpaired.

The researchers surgically implanted electrodes on the area of the brain that controls hand movements. This way, when the patient thinks about moving her hand, the interface processes the brain signals and translates them into physical actions.

In short, the ALS patient only had to think about moving in order to move.

Ramsey says that while the device needs further testing to determine its safety and effectiveness in big groups, the patient was so excited to be able to communicate that she opted to keep using it. He said, “She was quite adamant that nobody touches her system and she is still using it now.”

The interface only has four sensors now, but Ramsey hopes that in the future, more sensors would be possible so that communication is quicker and more in-depth. “[We] hope to be able to expand the capabilities of the next generation devices where we get more sensors,” he said.

Two more ALS patients are waiting to get implants, and additional trials are underway.

The study was published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

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