Talking To Completely Locked-In Family Members Is Possible; New Brain Computer Interface Device Developed By Scientists

First Posted: Feb 01, 2017 03:10 AM EST

A completely locked-in patient can hear, see and feel everything that goes around, but cannot react to anything because they are completely paralyzed. What exactly goes on inside the brain of such people has been a mystery for medical professionals and their family members. If only a brain computer interface could be developed, which can decipher the brain waves into understandable words, people can communicate with completely locked-in patients, who in most cases cannot even blink.

Recently, a paper published in the PLOS Biology journal indicated that an international team of scientists has developed such a non-invasive brain computer interface system, which enables communication with completely locked-in patients. The condition may have been caused by brain stroke or traumatic brain injury, administration of medicine overdose and other diseases of the nervous system, such as the amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).

The newly developed system employed functional near infrared spectroscopy in conjunction with electroencephalography (EEG) to measure the flow of blood and electrical activity levels inside the various regions of the brain. The patients were first asked generalized questions, the answers to which are already known, i.e., "Paris is the capital of France" and "Your husband's name is Joachim."

CNN reported that the response of the patients, which was in either "Yes" or "No," was studied in relation to the changes in oxygenation levels and electrical activities of the brain. Once a pattern was established, anyone can easily understand the signals and translate them into comprehensive answers.

"One patient's family is using it regularly. With some training, every caretaker of average intelligence can learn it," Niels Birbaumer, from the Wyss Center for Bio and Neuroengineering and the lead researcher of the study, said.

The brain computer interface system was tested on three completely locked-in women aged 68, 76 and 24 and one 61-year-old man. All four of them had limited or no communication with their family members since they were locked-in, because of either stroke or ALS. When the patients were asked "Are you happy?" they all had a positive answer, which showed their optimistic approach towards life. This challenged the previously held view point that completely locked-in patients "lack the goal-directed thinking necessary to use a brain-computer interface," RTE reported.

Professor John Donoghue, director of Wyss Center, said, "The Wyss Center plans to build on the results of this study to develop clinically useful technology that will be available to people with paralysis resulting from ALS, stroke, or spinal cord injury."

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