A German man with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) was able, through technology, to form sentences for the first time “in months,” TMZ reports. The breakthrough comes via a state of the art brain-computer interface system (BCI).
Among the initial communications from the 36-year-old father diagnosed nearly seven years ago? Requests for beer, to “listen to the album by Tool loud,” and to watch specific Disney films with his 4-year-old son, per a highly detailed study titled “Spelling interface using intracortical signals in a completely locked-in patient enabled via auditory neurofeedback training.”
ALS is a progressive nervous system disease that affects brain cells and the spinal cord, resulting in loss of muscle control that leaves patients unable to speak. In March 2019, neuroscientists at the Wyss Center for Bio and Neuroengineering in Geneva, Switzerland surgically implanted a microchip into the man’s brain to facilitate communication. Three years later, he successfully conveyed a sentence.
“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,” Dr. Jonas Zimmermann, the head neuroscientist at the Wyss Center, told the Independent.
Zimmermann continued, “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.”
Besides asking for a tasty beverage, the German patient requested different kinds of food to be fed through his tubes, while sending love to his young son.
“For food I want to have curry with potato then Bolognese and potato soup,” one request stated. “I love my cool son,” he also said, and asked him, “Do you want to watch Disney’s Robin Hood with me?”
Neuroscientists at the Wyss Center look forward to providing similar implants for other people with ALS. “This is an important step for people living with ALS who are being cared for outside the hospital environment,” George Kouvas, chief technology officer at the Wyss Center, said. “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.”