Hoping Thoughts Become Movement for ALS Patients

PHOTO: With ALS, patients are typically left paralyzed while their brains cognitive capability remains intact.
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Many people take for granted the simple act of turning on a TV or switching off a lamp. For those diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), however, such daily actions are nearly impossible.

But at the intersection of neurological research and consumer technology lies potential hope for those seeking to regain a degree of control and autonomy. Philips, maker of wireless, connected devices like the Lifeline Medical Alert, and Hue lighting systems have partnered with consulting firm Accenture to develop proof-of-concept software that works in tandem with a headset measuring brainwave activity.

A neurodegenerative disease that eventually overtakes one’s ability to control his or her muscle movements, ALS (a.k.a. Lou Gehrig ’s disease) patients are typically left paralyzed while their brain’s cognitive capability remains intact.

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Though still in early stages, the software could potentially enable patients who have lost voluntary control of their limbs to harness the power of their thoughts, transforming their brainwave activity into real-life actions, like turning on a television or lights. Paired with the Emotiv Insight, a wearable device that has sensors measuring brainwave activity, the software translates a person’s thoughts into simple commands that are in turn connected to so-called “smart” devices like the Philips Hue lighting system.

Tony Jones, vice president and CMO of Philips Healthcare Patient Care and Monitoring Solutions, notes, “The thing that’s becoming very interesting is the integration of wearable technology to other applications that we typically use on smartphones or tablets.”

The Hue lighting system allows users to control connected lights via their mobile device. When paired with a wearable technology like Emotiv’s Insight, the option for hands-free control is compelling, especially for users who may not have a choice.

“Instead of going from voice command to control an application, you can actually go beyond that and just use a brain sensor,” Jones added. “So, literally, a person can think about what they want to do, and trigger a command that then gets executed all the way to the lights in their house.”

Exactly how much control can a user induce? Dr. Charles Liu, director of the University of Southern California Neurorestoration Center, says it depends on the degree or resolution, of brain activity recordings.

“The easiest way to record brain activity is with scalp electrodes," Liu said. "The level of resolution, however, is not very great when you do recordings of this nature because the signal is essentially an average of all of the activity of these neurons in this region of the brain [that it’s being recorded from].”

Interference also comes in the physical form of muscle and bone, Liu said.

“The signal that the brain gives off is blocked at some level by skull," Liu said. "Bone really attenuates the electrical signal.”

Despite the limitations, Liu stressed that the greatest innovations have evolved over time.

“The Wright brothers demonstrated powered flight. I don’t think they ever envisioned a vehicle driving around Mars and they certainly didn’t envision a big jumbo jet,” he said. “But, incrementally, over time, if there is real value, that actually does help people, then that’s something that can be built upon.”

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