A breakthrough in our ability to communicate with fully paralyzed patients has materialized in the form of a brain computer interface operated by the Wyss Center for Bio and Neuroengineering in Geneva.
The team of European scientists and medical experts have created a way of being able to hear the voices of those who have been struck down by full-body paralysis. The machine, a brain-computer interface, can be placed on a patient’s head like a swimming cap and can measure changes in electrical waves and blood flow from the brain, using a technique known as near-infrared spectroscopy. This machine can then interpret the data it receives to a yes or no answer.
So far, the results of this brain computer interface have been incredibly successful, with the answers yielding a 70% success rate within a controlled environment. The full study, which was only just recently published, can be read here. This research certainly gives the loved ones of people affected by Lou Gehrig’s disease, stroke or other forms of paralysis a chance at having a conversation, as MIT Technology Review’s Emily Mullin relays:
“In response to the statement “I love to live” three of the four replied yes. Birbaumer says “the relief was enormous” for family members who were able to communicate with their loved ones after as many as four years of total silence, and to learn they wished to remain alive on ventilators.”
This study has been several years in the making, with a British neuroscientist first reporting in 2010 the changes in blood flow within the brain could prove that patients in previously assumed vegetative states were actually fully conscious. These people are referred to as being “locked-in”, and modern medicine is still unsure as to how many paralysed people are in that state, still in full control of their brain despite not having control of the rest of their body. As Mullin explains further:
“Some may be misdiagnosed as being comatose because they lack eye movement or it’s so subtle. Birbaumer and his team say their system could be used as a diagnostic to determine who actually remains conscious and aware, and he hopes to develop a technology to allow people with complete locked-in syndrome to select letters so they can communicate beyond answering yes-or-no questions.”
Whilst doctors are still trying to figure out the intricacies of whether or not their patients are “locked-in”, the technology enabling these patients to continue to communicate with their families despite their condition is rapidly evolving.