Brain-Reading Device Allows Locked-in Syndrome Patients To Communicate

Patients with locked-in syndrome can now have simple conversations using a non-invasive brain-computer interface system. It was generally believed that for completely locked-in patients, it was impossible to communicate with the outside world, but this groundbreaking technology allows researchers to decode the paralyzed patients thought while they were asked to think “yes” or “no” in response to a series of simple questions, such as “Your husband’s name is Joachim” and “Berlin is the capital of France,” according to the study, published in the journal PLOS Biology.

Functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIR), a tool to measure blood flow and oxygenation in the brain through hemodynamic responses associated with neuron behavior, was used to decode patients’ thoughts. Also, each time the patients answered, a computer hooked up to the electroencephalography (EEG) cap that measures electrical activity in the brain, learned to distinguish the blood flow patterns for “yes” and “no” in each patient. The Guardians reported that when the patients scored at least 70 percent on the training sessions, researchers moved on to more personal questions. Results indicated all patients involved in the study were happy with life, suggesting that locked-in syndrome might not be the living hell many presume it to be.

“It’s the first sign that completely locked-in syndrome may be abolished forever, because with all of these patients, we can now ask them the most critical questions in life,” said Niels Birbaumer, a neuroscientist who led the research at the University of Tübingen in a statement at the Guardian. “This is the first time we’ve been able to establish reliable communication with these patients and I think that is important for them and their families. I can say that after 30 years of trying to achieve this, it was one of the most satisfying moments of my life when it worked.”

  • Reference: Brain–Computer Interface–Based Communication in the Completely Locked-In State – PLOS Biology
  • [Image: Wyss Center via The Guardian]