Doctors have successfully provided the first patient with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) with a brain implant system that allows her to communicate via her thoughts. Prior to this surgery, Hanneke de Bruijne of the Netherlands, who is paralyzed and on a ventilator, had been what medical professionals refer to as “locked in.” That is,she was unable to communicate with the outside world due to the physical paralysis that gradually overtook her entire body.
Dr. Nick Ramsey, also of the Netherlands and lead researcher on the brain-implant study, says, “It’s a completely harrowing situation … as people are still cognizant.” The brain implant provides Bruijne substantial improvement in her ability to communicate.
The Science of the Brain Implant
Prior to the brain implant, the best-known technology required people to use eye movements to choose letters or words from a computer screen. But that technology required a specific type and amount of light not found outdoors or in many other settings. Moreover, a third of all people diagnosed with ALS eventually lose eye movement. Bruijne was unsatisfied with the limitations in the eye movement technology.
Rather than use eye movement to select letters, the brain implant places electrodes on the part of the brain’s surface that controls hand movements and also in the region used to count backwards. The brain activity travels through a wire to another electrode, implanted in the chest. Outside the body, components include an antenna, a receiver and a tablet with a simplified keyboard on a screen.
Bruijne stares at the screen until a square passes over the letter she wants to choose. She trained her brain over six months to send a signal telling her arm to move at that precise moment, which stimulates the electrodes and activates a click on the keyboard through the
Amy McElroy is a contributing editor and writer for Rewire Me. She has written for print, radio, and online publications such as The Bold Italic, The Billfold, Noodle, Cosmopolitan, BlogHer, and others. Her website, amyjmcelroy.net, lists her editorial services. She’s on twitter at @amyjmcelroy. Amy balances her work at the computer by teaching yoga and fitness.