Brain implant gives voice to ALS patient: ‘I love my cool son’

A man paralyzed by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) now has the ability to spell out his thoughts, thanks to an implanted electrode device that reads signals from his brain. One of his first sentences was, “I like my son cool.”

The news is heartwarming, not only for the man’s son, but also for the nearly 200,000 other people around the world who have been diagnosed with ALS. This could be the start of a new era of using brain implants to treat various diseases.

ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, is a disease in which motor neurons gradually break down and die. As motor neurons die, the patient loses the ability to move certain muscles. The disease progresses until the patient can no longer care for themselves or communicate, and most patients die within five years of diagnosis.

Currently, patients with advanced ALS can communicate their thoughts by using eye movements to indicate letters or words on a screen. But eventually, patients also lose this ability and could spend a significant portion of their lives not being able to communicate at all.

Several methods have been tested to help ALS patients communicate. In 2016, researcher Mariska Vansteensel, a brain-computer interface researcher at the Utrecht University Medical Center, pioneer of a new technique. Vansteensel and his team have created a series of brain implants in a woman with ALS who could detect her attempts at hand movements to spell out letters or words. However, the patient in this study still had minimal hand and eye movements, so the study was not deemed feasible for many ALS patients.

But German researchers wanted to take this brain implant technology a step further. At the University of Tübingen in 2018, researchers met the ALS patient. At the time, he still had the ability to move his eyes. He wanted to be able to communicate with his wife and son, so he agreed to an experimental procedure.

The researchers implanted two electrodes in the patient’s brain. After three months of testing, they were finally able to use neurofeedback to help the patient communicate. The implants produced a musical pitch that matched the speed of the electrons shooting into the patient’s brain: a higher pitch when the electrons were speeding up, a lower pitch when they were slowing down. The researchers told the patient to try changing his thoughts to affect the speed of the electrons. Soon he was able to change his mind and was able to match the musical pitches of the seekers.

“It was like music to the ear,” said Ujwal Chaudhary, a biomedical engineer and neurotechnologist at German association ALS Voice.

Eventually, the researchers and the patient worked together to create tonal communication systems. By making certain tones, the patient could indicate yes or no, and later was able to indicate specific letters. Letter by letter, the patient was able to spell entire sentences, including telling his son he loved him.

The idea of ​​using brain implants could have a huge impact on a variety of diseases and conditions. For example, the neurotechnology plant NeuroVigil recently present during the opening speech of the conference on new technologies and mental health during the Dubai World Expo. The company introduced iBrain™, a brain implant that can help patients with speech disorders communicate. It has been tested on patients with ALS, brain cancer, Parkinson’s disease and severe overmedication.

Likewise, BioCorRxa company that focuses on treatments for addictions and neurological disorders, recently announcement it had received Independent Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval for the company’s Phase I clinical trial of BICX104. The drug is an implantable, biodegradable naltrexone lozenge designed to treat patients with opioid use disorder. The implant can block certain opioid receptors in the brain and reduce food cravings.

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