The University Medical Center Utrecht (UMC) has announced the success of a brain implant in a Dutch patient suffering from ALS disease that enables her to operate a speech computer with her mind. Fifty-nine year-old mother-of-three Hanneke de Bruijne was diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease) in 2008 and can no longer move or speak, yet her mind is fully functional. The electrode implanted in her brain picks up brain activity and enables her to wirelessly control a speech computer to communicate with family and caregivers. What's more, she uses the technology not in a laboratory but at home and it is mobile enough to travel, promising a new life for those otherwise locked in non-functioning bodies.

Computers are going to become much better at repairing human cognitive and sensory-motor functions in the not-too-distant future, and the UMC achievement signifies another milestone in humanity's relationship with the computer.

This announcement also marks a milestone in assisting and augmenting (not just repairing) human cognitive and sensory-motor functions, and gives us a peak at a future world where communication by thought alone might be possible.

"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," said Nick Ramsey, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at 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."

Hanneke de Bruijne underwent surgery last year to implant the electrodes on her brain, with the wires passing through tiny holes in her skull and a small transmitter was then placed in her body below her collarbone. This transmitter receives the signals from the electrodes via subcutaneous wires, amplifies them and transmits them wirelessly to the computer.

The speech computer is operated by Hanneke de Bruijne moving her fingers "in her mind." This brain activity is detected by the electrodes, and the movement is converted into a mouse click.

On a screen in front of her, Hanneke de Bruijne can construct words and sentences using a dedicated interface designed for the task, and those words are in turn vocalized by the speech computer. This is similar to using a speech computer via a push-button interface, but with a brain signal used instead to actuate the button instead of a muscle.

Trials of the implant are currently underway with three patients, and the researchers hope to progress to a larger, international trial following that phase.

"We hope that these results will stimulate research into more advanced implants, so that some day not only people with communication problems, but also people with paraplegia, for example, can be helped," says Ramsey.

This research that enabled this breakthrough was conducted by the UMC Utrecht Brain Center Rudolf Magnus through its Utrecht NeuroProsthesis Project (UNP) and is funded by the technology foundation STW. The implant itself came from medical technology company Medtronic.

The project is introduced in the UMC Utrecht video below.

Source: UMC Utrecht

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