There’s new hope for patients diagnosed with locked-in syndrome, as scientists from the University of Tübingen have found a way to bridge the gap between their minds and the outside world. If implemented, the innovative communication device will allow patients with similar conditions to talk with their family members and friends.
While studying the effects of CLIS or completely locked-in syndrome, a condition brought on by neurodegenerative diseases such as ALS, a team of scientists from Germany, have discovered that even though the patients couldn’t move their limbs or breath on their own, their mind remained active. Furthermore, they have also observed that the brain can be trained to work with a highly-sophisticated computer in order to answer “yes” and “no” questions.
To test out their assumption, the team of scientists led by neuroscientists Niels Birbaumer, asked four patients to partake in his study. Each has been diagnosed with the completely locked-in syndrome. Three of the participants were women, and one was male, and they have ages between 24 and 76.
After being diagnosed with the condition, the participants were briefed, for at least one year, on how to work with the brain-computer interface. In layman’s terms, the computer was programmed to pick up brain blood flow changes associated with “yes” and “no” answers.
During the training sessions, participants were wearing specially-designed caps, whose purpose was to scan their brain for these blood flow changes. As Birbaumer explained, the machine uses infrared light to detect these subtle changes.
In order to establish communication, the scientists first had to teach the machine what “yes” and “no” meant in terms of blood flow patterns. Thus, for a period of one year, the participants were asked simple questions like “is your name, Hans?”. But instead of speaking out the answer, they were asked to visualize the correct answer in their minds.
At the end of the trial, the machine could predict with a 70 percent accuracy the patients’ answers. However, that was not the end of it. Birbaumer declared that the patients were also asked more personal questions such as if they are happy with their lives.
Surprisingly, even though the patient was fed through tubes and his lungs assisted by a machine, his answers suggested that he’s happy and hopeful. The study’s lead author said that, during the study, he and his team uncovered a little family drama, as a 61-year-old patient answered “no” approximately ten times in a row when asked if her daughter should marry Mario, her boyfriend.
Birbaumer considers this discovery a breakthrough, and he is confident that, with more work, his team could create an apparatus that will allow patients with locked-in syndrome to communicate with the outside world.
Image source: Wikipedia