Brain Implant Helps 'Locked In' ALS Patient Communicate

ALS results in loss of ability to communicate.

ByABC News
November 12, 2016, 5:20 PM

— -- A brain implant has allowed a woman with the so-called “locked-in syndrome” to finally communicate after amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease) robbed her of the ability to speak.

The brain-computer interface was implanted into the unnamed patient’s brain, enabling her to communicate by translating a "brain click" into a mouse click, according to a study published today in the New England Journal of Medicine. With the interface, the patient could click on letters of the alphabet to spell out what she wanted to say.

Nick Ramsey, senior study author and cognitive neuroscientist at University Medical Center Utrecht, said the patient is ecstatic about the experimental device.

“We feel like we succeeded because she really wants to use it,” Ramsey told ABC News. “She wants to keep the system.”

ALS is a neurodegenerative disease in which patients gradually lose their ability to move, speak and even breathe. While they ultimately become paralyzed, ALS patients’ cognitive function isn’t affected by the disease.

The 58-year-old female patient studied had progressed to the point of being “locked in” before the implant. While her ability to think was completely intact, she could not move any part of her body except her eyes.

To help her communicate, researchers surgically implanted electrodes on the region of the brain responsible for hand movement. When she thinks about moving her hand, the device decodes the electric signals, translating them into clicks on a tablet computer.

This means the new device does not require her to move at all in order to communicate. Instead, she only needs to think about moving.

For now, the device only has four sensors, enabling the patient to select letters on a keyboard in order to write.

While more research is needed to ensure the device is safe and effective in larger groups, Ramsey said that even after the study finished, the patient was excited to keep using the experimental device.

“She was quite adamant that nobody touches her system and she is still using it now,” he said.

In the future, Ramsey said they hope if they have 30 to 40 sensors, there could be quicker and more nuanced communication.

“[We] hope to be able to expand the capabilities of the next generation devices where we get more sensors,” he explained. “That will make their lives even easier.”

Ramsey has two other patients awaiting similar implants and plans on conducting additional trials, he said.

Before the implant, the woman in this study had lost her ability to make any noises and it became quite nerve-racking for her family to take her outside. “Worst case scenario, her breathing tube could get disconnected and nobody would know unless someone was looking at her,” Ramsey said.

Now she has a way to communicate that can help her stay active, said Ramsey.

“She is really a very active woman,“ said Ramsey. “She has three children in their late teens. She likes to go outside. She likes to go on holiday. She likes to do things that ordinary people do.”

Dr. JOELLE ROSSER is an internal medicine physician at the University of Washington and a resident at ABC News Medical Unit.