He wanted some post-op hops.
A paralyzed man who was unable to move or communicate for months is now finally able to speak thanks to a state-of-the-art brain-computer interface system (BCI).
His first words? “I want a beer.”
The unnamed 36-year-old patient had been suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a progressive nervous system disease that affects the brain and spinal cord, resulting in loss of muscle control. As a result, the man was left unable to talk or even move his eyes, preventing him from communicating in any way, per a study published in the journal Nature Communications.
While his first request is astonishing, his case might also be groundbreaking in terms of recovery.
“Successful communication has previously been demonstrated with BCIs in individuals with paralysis, but, to our knowledge, ours is the first study to achieve communication by someone who has no remaining voluntary movement and hence for whom the BCI is now the sole means of communication,” exclaimed Dr. Jonas Zimmermann, the head neuroscientist at the Wyss Center for Bio and Neuroengineering in Geneva, Switzerland where the operation took place, Yahoo News reported.
A breakthrough came in 2018 when the ALS sufferer consented to be fitted for the BCVI at the Wyss Center for Bio and Neuroengineering in Geneva, Switzerland.
Surgeons implanted the beer-loving male’s motor cortex with two “intracortical microelectrode arrays,” which decipher the brain signals used for communication. These are then translated into speech in real-time via a special speller program like a neurological Google Translate, as demonstrated in this video by the Wyss Center.
It took three months of trial and error for the unnamed patient to finally be able to answer “yes” or “no” when presented with letters, Yahoo News reported. Three weeks later, he was finally able to “say” his first sentence.
Communications generated through the “RoboCop”-esque mind-reader included a request to listen to the Tool song “Loud,” asking his mom for a head rub and even orders for various dishes to be fed to him through his tube, including goulash soup and sweet pea soup.
“For food, I want to have curry with potato then Bolognese and potato soup,” read one of the orders. He was also able to interact with his wife and 4-year-old boy, to who he told “I love my cool son.”
Scientists were ecstatic about the progress until now, a brain implant had never been fully tested on a totally locked-in patient — meaning that scientists had no way of knowing if it even worked, the Independent reported.
“This study answers a long-standing question about whether people with complete locked-in syndrome – who have lost all voluntary muscle control, including movement of the eyes or mouth – also lose the ability of their brain to generate commands for communication,” said Zimmerman.
Best of all, the man was able to use the BCI on a laptop from the comfort of his own home.
“This is an important step for people living with ALS who are being cared for outside the hospital environment,” said George Kouvas, chief technology officer at the Wyss Center. “This technology, benefiting a patient and his family in their own environment, is a great example of how technological advances in the BCI field can be translated to create direct impact.”
Currently, more research is needed into BCI’s safety and effectiveness before it can be used more widely to treat ALS.
“This is experimental technology, our mission to further develop this technology and improve the lives of people with paralysis,” said Zimmerman.
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