Paralyzed ALS patient operates speech computer with her mind

In the UMC Utrecht a brain implant has been placed in a patient enabling her to operate a speech computer with her mind. The researchers and the patient worked intensively to get the settings right. She communicated at home with her family and caregivers via the implant. Because she suffers from ALS disease, the patient is no longer able to move and speak. Doctors placed electrodes in her brain, and the electrodes pick up brain activity. This enables her to wirelessly control a speech computer that she now uses at home. That a patient used this technique at home is unique in the world. This research was published in the New England Journal of Medicine. This study has led to the development of mutliple other studies on home-use implanted BCIs.

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This is a major breakthrough in achieving autonomous communication among severely paralyzed patients whose paralysis is caused by either ALS, a cerebral hemorrhage or trauma”, says Professor Nick Ramsey, professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University Medical Center (UMC) Utrecht. “In effect, this patient has had a kind of remote control placed in her head, which enables her to operate a speech computer without the use of her muscles.” 

More than a Brain-Click

The minimal control provided by our BCIs is a brain-click, for example by thinking of moving the finger. This changes the brain signal under the electrodes. That change is converted into a mouse click. On a screen in front the patient can see the alphabet, plus some additional functions such as deleting a letter or word and selecting words. Clicks can be made at the right moment with the brain. This technique is comparable to actuating a speech computer via a push-button (with a muscle that can still function, for example, in the neck or hand). So now, if a patient lacks muscle activity, a brain signal can be used instead. New strategies for computer control are now being developed, such as 2D mouse movement and direct speech decoding.


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The patients undergo surgery during which electrodes were placed on her brain through tiny holes in her skull. A small transmitter was then placed in the body. This transmitter receives the signals from the electrodes via subcutaneous wires, amplifies them and transmits them wirelessly. The UMC Utrecht Brain Center has spent many years researching the possibility of controlling a computer by means of electrodes that capture brain activity. Working with a computer driven by brain signals measured with a bathing cap with electrodes has long been tested in various research laboratories. That a patient can use the technique at home, through invisible, implanted electrodes, is unique in the world.


This research is mutliple studies conducted by the UMC Utrecht Brain Center and in collaboration with the Johns Hopkins Hospital, Wyss Center, TU Graz and Cortec.