Researchers in Europe have made breakthroughs in technology that allows people suffering from “locked-in syndrome” to communicate via a brain-computer interface.
“Locked-in syndrome” refers to a condition in which patients are entirely paralyzed aside from some slight eye movement. The condition can be caused by diseases such as Lou Gehrig’s disease or a stroke. Researchers in Europe have now invented a brain-to-computer interface that has allowed them to communicate with four patients suffering from the condition.
MIT Technology Review reports that the new technology was designed by neuroscientist Niels Birbaumer at the Wyss Center for Bio and Neuroengineering in Geneva. The interface is worn on the head like a swimming cap and works by measuring changes in electrical waves produced by the brain. It also uses a technique known as near-infrared spectroscopy to monitor the blood flow in the brain. Birbaumer’s experiment was published in PLOS Bilology.
When tested on four patients suffering from locked-in syndrome, three of the four patients replied yes to the statement, “I love to live,” and the question, “Are you happy?” The fourth patient in the test was not asked open-ended questions, as it was believed by her parents that her mental state was quite fragile.
It took ten days of testing to verify that the interface worked correctly by asking the patients questions about their life, such as, “You were born in Berlin,” or, “Paris is the capital of Germany.” This helped the team to decipher which signals meant “yes” and which meant “no.” The answers were consistent just over 70% of the time.
Birbaumer says “the relief was enormous” for family members who were able to communicate with their loved ones for the first time in as many as four years and to finally learn of their loved ones’ wishes to stay alive.
Jane Huggins, who runs the Direct Brain Interface Laboratory at the University of Michigan, says that no one knows exactly how many patients suffer from locked-in syndrome but an estimate by a Dutch researcher put the number as high as 150’000 in that country alone.
Birbaumer hopes to further develop the technology so that patients may one day be able to select letters using his interface and communicate further than just “yes” or “no” replies.