By Shen Gao
A woman suffering from ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) in the Netherlands recently underwent a brain surgery that allows her to communicate through the placement of an implant.
Hanneke de Bruijne, a mother of three, was diagnosed with ALS in 2008. Over the course of eight years, she lost her ability to move her limbs, fingers, and even her face muscles. She was barely able to communicate with anyone, and required a ventilator to breathe.
Until recently, she had to mainly rely on the movement of her eyes to indicate what she was thinking or wanted to say, through the help of an eye-tracking device. However, this device almost never worked outside due to daylight.
The new brain implant works anywhere, without the assistance of professionals.
Known as a brain-computer interface, the invisible technology relies on electrodes that are placed on the motor cortex of the brain, which controls movement. They are wired to a small transmitter that is implanted in de Bruijne’s chest. This transmitter then communicates with a receiver that is connected to a computer that shows a letter grid.
When she wants to select a letter on the screen, she watches the square moving on the letters, and watch where the box lands. When it lands on the letter that she wants, she must think about trying to move her right hand to press the letter—even though she is not able to complete the actual movement. The motor cortex, however, still produces the same signal that corresponds to this movement, and these signals are transmitted to correctly select the letter.
Nick Ramsey, professor of neuroscience at the University Medical School Utrecht in the Netherlands, led the research that produced this technology. Currently, de Bruijne can communicate at a rate of two letters per minute, which is still slower compared to the eye tracker. However, Ramsey hopes to make his implant faster and more sophisticated.
“Now, we can start working on systems that have 30 or 60 electrodes to decode sign language … or internal speech.” Ramsey told CNN. “Then you could spell the way a deal person would spell. That is the goal.”