In a major breakthrough, a team of European researchers has developed a high-tech solution to give a voice to the voiceless.
By using a brain-computer interface, the team from the Wyss Center in Geneva successfully communicated with patients suffering from complete locked-in syndrome (CLIS), a devastating neurological condition. The researchers published their findings in a new paper published in PLOS Biology.
Those affected by CLIS, which comes as a result of diseases like ALS or neurological damage from a stroke or damage to the spinal cord, suffer from total paralysis. Mentally, however, they remain active and aware of their surroundings. In other words, their consciousness is locked inside their body with no way to break free.
A less advanced form of the condition, simply known as locked-in syndrome, refers to patients who retain some small control over their eye movements. This was famously depicted in the book The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and its film adaptation, whose subject, Jean-Dominique Bauby, dictated his autobiography to an aide by blinking his left eye.
The Wyss Center researchers tested a non-invasive brain-computer interface (BCI) on four patients suffering from CLIS as a result of ALS. Two of the subjects were already in a permanent CLIS state, while the other two were entering the full CLIS state.
The BCI system was able to detect responses to spoken personal questions with known yes or no answers by measuring changes in blood oxygen levels in the brain. The patients answered the queries correctly at a 70 percent clip, but not all of the things they were asked were simple, concrete facts. In one of the tests, the subject responded “no” nine out of ten times when asked if he would be okay with his daughter marrying her boyfriend.
The success of the project was surprising even for the researchers, who held out little hope to be able to communicate with CLIS patients.
“The striking results overturn my own theory that people with complete locked-in syndrome are not capable of communication,” Professor Niels Birbaumer, the senior author of the paper, said in a press release. “If we can replicate this study in more patients I believe we could restore useful communication in completely locked-in states for people with motor neuron diseases.”
The researchers were even more surprised with the consistent response to the one question they didn’t already know the answer to: Are you happy? Over weeks of questioning, the subjects repeatedly responded to this with a “yes.”
“We were initially surprised at the positive responses when we questioned the four completely locked-in participants about their quality of life,” said Birbaumer. “What we observed was as long as they received satisfactory care at home, they found their quality of life acceptable. It is for this reason, if we could make this technique widely clinically available, it would have a huge impact on the day-to-day life of people with complete locked-in syndrome.”