Man With ALS Uses New Brain Implant to Communicate Request to Listen to Tool Loud
It's always great to see technological and scientific advances being put to good use. For instance, a new Science.org feature on the impact of a new brain implant on ALS patients reveals that one of the participants used the implant to express his desire to listen to an album from the band Tool ... and loud.
The neurological disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as ALS, often robs those who have it of the ability to communicate. Eventually they lose control of their muscles and are often unable to speak or even get to the point of not being able to communicate via blinking or with an eye-tracking camera. But a new implanted device has been shown to allow the ability to read brain signals, even within a "locked in" state.
According to the feature, a man with ALS who is now 36, started to work with a research team at the University of Tübingen in 2018, when he could still move his eyes. He told the team he wanted the implant in order to be able to still with family, including his son, and his wife and sister gave consent for the surgery.
The researchers then inserted two square electrode arrays, 3.2 millimeters wide, into a part of the brain that controls movement. When they asked the man to try to move his hands, feet, head, and eyes, the neural signals weren’t consistent enough to answer yes-or-no questions, says Ujwal Chaudhary, a biomedical engineer and neurotechnologist at the German nonprofit ALS Voice.
But after three months of unsuccessful attempts to communicate, the team tried neurofeedback where a person attempts to modify their brain signals while getting a real-time measure of whether they are succeeding. An audible tone got higher in pitch as the electrical firing of neurons near the implant sped up, lower as it slowed. Researchers asked the participant to change that pitch using any strategy they could try. On the first day, he could move the tone, and by day 12, he could match it to a target pitch. “It was like music to the ear,” Chaudhary recalled.
By being able to move the tone, that allowed for the ability to answer "yes" or "no" questions concerning a group of letters, therefore enabling him to communicate in sentences. Among his first messages were "I would like to listen to the album by Tool loud," "I love my cool son," and "Goulash soup and sweet pea soup."
He was then able to communicate to the team that he had tried to adjust the tone by moving his eyes, but was not always successful in doing so.
Oregon Health & Science researcher Melanie Fried-Oken stated, “It’s so cool.” But she noted, “We’re nowhere near getting this into an assistive technology state that could be purchased by a family.” Chaudhary’s foundation is seeking funding to give similar implants to several more people with ALS. He estimates the system would cost close to $500,000 over the first two years.