It's a painfully slow process, but a man who's been unable to communicate with anyone since 2018 is now able to tell his son he loves him and even ask for a beer.
The 36-year-old German who's been left completely paralysed from motor neurone disease is able to convey his thoughts to his family after a mind-reading device was implanted into his brain.
The unidentified man has been in a completely locked-in state caused by the progression of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a neurodegenerative disorder that leads to the inability to make voluntary muscular movements.
He's also unable to communicate reliably with his eyes because he's no longer able to open them voluntarily.
He was diagnosed with a form of the disease in 2015 and lost verbal communication in the same year, then voluntary eye movement in 2018.
But in a breakthrough study recently published in the Nature Communications journal, scientists were able to assist him to communicate his requests for the first time in two years.
This was achieved by lodging an implant consisting of two electrodes into the part of the brain that controls movement, called the motor cortex.
For 12 weeks in 2019, the medical team tried asking him to imagine making physical movements in order to get signals from the brain that could be translated into commands, but their efforts were unsuccessful.
Then they tried another approach called neurofeedback.
This approach gives real-time feedback of brain activity to a patient in order for them to learn how to control it. An increase in activity is represented by rising audio and decreased activity is represented by descending audio.
The results were incredible, according to Ujwal Chaudhary of ALS Voice gGmbH, a non-profit organisation in Germany.
“Within two days, he was able to increase and decrease the frequency of a sound tone,” he says.
The man was able to play the ascending sound to indicate a "yes" and the descending sound to say "no".
He was eventually able to spell out complete sentences.
“[His family] were so excited to hear what he had to say,” Chaudhary says.
“Many times, I was with him until midnight, or past midnight. The last word was always ‘beer',” adds Chaudhary, who co-authored the study.
He’d make request to his wife for things such as a mixer to puree his food and even asked his son to watch Disney shows with him.
“I love my cool son,” was one of the sentences the machine translated.
It’s a work-in-progress as the team says it still takes him about a minute to select each letter.
They believe it will aid patients with similar symptoms.
“This case study provides evidence that brain-based volitional communication is possible even in a completely locked-in state.”
There have been various other devices and systems developed to help patients paralysed due to ALS to communicate with others.
Renowned British physicist Stephen Hawking lived with ALS for more than 50 years before he died in 2018.
He eventually lost his voice and the use of his hands, which led to him using a communication device that allowed him to squeeze his cheeks and blink to communicate with his computer via an infrared sensor attached to his glasses.
The computer would then translate the text into speech.
- The disease affects the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord.
- The cause of ALS is unknown.
- It's not contagious.
- There's no cure for ALS but it can be slowed down via medication and therapy.
- Muscle weakness and impairment in limbs are common symptoms.
SOURCES: THECONVERSATION.COM, DAILYMAIL.CO.UK, NATURE.COM, TECHNOLOGYREVIEW.COM, RAREDISEASE.ORG, WIRED.COM