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New Biomedical System Detects “Yes/No” Thoughts in Totally Paralyzed People

February 1, 2017        

By Mendy Hecht, Hamaspik Gazette

System “Reads” Locked-in Healthy Minds, Enables Minimal Communication

 

Using widely-used existing biomedical technology, a European research team was recently able to virtually read the minds of four patients with advanced ALS who could not talk or move at all—a condition known as locked-in syndrome—allowing them effectively communicate with loved ones, some for the first time in years.

 

The still-experimental system uses an EEG cap worn on the patients’ heads and a near-infrared spectroscope (NIRS), both common systems in medicine today.

 

Electroencephalography (EEG) is normally used to read electrical activity in the brain.  Near-infrared spectroscopy (NIRS) is normally used to measure levels of oxygen in the blood.

 

The brain’s electrical activity and blood oxygen levels are distinctly different when a person thinks “yes” or “no.”  Based on that fact, researchers were able to detect distinctly different patterns in the patients’ brains when they asked them four simple “yes/no” questions.

 

The youngest of the four, a 23-year-old female ALS patient who had lost all ability to move, was asked if her mother’s name was Margit.  The interface detected her correct answer of “yes.”

 

Another patient was a 68-year-old woman who hadn’t been able to talk for a decade.  She had also been on a ventilator and a feeding tube since 2007, and unable to even blink since 2010.  (Many non-verbal ALS patients use eye-tracking talking systems to spell out and speak words from a computer screen.)

 

The study confirms that locked-in patients can still hear and think, and do not lose brain function or awareness with disease progression, even if they can’t let anyone know it.

 

“It is for this reason, if we could make this technique widely clinically available, it could have a huge impact on the day-to-day life of people with completely locked-in syndrome,” lead researcher Dr. Niels Birbaumer said in a statement.

 

It’s not much—just “yes” and “no,” deciphered using EEGs and NIRS light to see where electricity and blood flow was occurring in their brains.  But the patients were able to communicate, and even “answer” yes when asked by families, “Are you happy?”

 

“Family members of all four patients experienced substantial relief and continue to use the system,” reported Dr. Birbaumer in the study, published in PLoS Biology.

 

“We were initially surprised at the positive responses when we questioned the four completely locked-in patients about their quality of life,” he added.  “All four had accepted artificial ventilation in order to sustain their life, when breathing became impossible; thus, in a sense, they had already chosen to live.  What we observed was that as long as they received satisfactory care at home, they found their quality of life acceptable.”

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig’s, is a terminal illness with no known cure that progressively robs the body of all movement.  According to the CDC, over 12,000 people in the U.S. have ALS.