Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) is one of the degenerative diseases that affect the brain and nervous system more devastating. Nerve cells break down and little by little the patient loses all motor functions, even the most basic ones. Theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking (1942 – 2018) was the most publicly known case.
Hawking had a personalized communication system, capable of reading his facial expressions and turning them into words, dictated through his voice synthesizer, since he could not speak, but what to do when the patient is completely paralyzed? An alternative is the brain/machine interface.
It is not news that deciphering and understanding how the brain works is not a simple task, but we already know a lot about it, especially when it comes to the formation of words and language. We have already been able to observe how and where words are formed, and creating an interface capable of translating the process, and reproducing the expressions on a computer, is entirely possible.
This is the research presented by a team of scientists from the Wyss Center for Bio and Neuroengineering, a neurotechnology institute in Brussels, Belgium, founded by John P. Donoghue, an authority in the field of neuroprosthetics and brain/machine interface, being a from the original developers of BrainGate, technology that establishes a direct physical interface in the brain, to control external extensions, such as mechanical arms by quadriplegics.
Like injured people with paralysis and amputees, patients suffering from ALS in advanced stages can benefit from technology, for handling robotic limbs, but also for communication, in restoring communication skills. In the most severe cases, the individual has total paralysis of all the muscles of the body, including the facial and eye muscles, becoming a prisoner of his own body: unable to interact with the outside world, but fully conscious.
This is what happened to the subject of the study (Caution, PDF), a 34-year-old German who originally consented to the use of an implant in 2019, when he could still communicate using eye movements. However, his condition worsened and he lost even this ability, becoming unable to communicate.
To solve this initial problem, the Wyss Center team used a connection to the motor cortex, which translated the original impulses aimed at voluntary muscle movement, and translated them into an interface, which translates each impulse as “yes” or “no”.
According to the research, the patient underwent intensive training for three months, in order to learn to operate the brain/machine interface, using movement impulses to select letters in a bank, and form words.
The first one he managed to write, using only his brain, was “thanks” to Dr. Niel Birbaumer, leader of the research. The patient has since made several requests using the software, which translates the formed words into voice, using a synthesizer, from asking for his head to be placed in a higher position, to watching a Disney movie with his son, and even.. Beer (German, after all).
He even suggested improvements in the software used, such as the inclusion of a bank of ready-made phrases, the addition of a word prediction algorithm. This feature even made it much easier for Hawking to type, when he typed “o”, the system suggested “hole” and then “black”, considering the history of sentences most frequently dictated.
Even in recent years the kit that Hawking used was provided by Intel; the voice recognition software used was from Nuance Communications, which also created the one used by Siri, before the company that developed the virtual assistant was bought by Apple. Nuance is now owned by Microsoft.
There are, of course, some considerations. The research presented by the Wyss Center team is the first that allowed a patient with ALS in the “lock-in” stage, in which the individual does not voluntarily control any muscle in his body, managed to reestablish a channel of communication with other people, but the pace is still quite slow, with the formation of one character per minute, far behind the last version that Hawking used.
Of course, the theoretical physicist had Intel behind him, which bankrolled his equipment for nearly two decades; In this regard, the researchers are now seeking $500,000 in funding, both to improve the software and to provide it to more patients.
Anyway, Rome wasn’t built in one day, and you have to start from somewhere. Even if he is slow, it is certain that the German patient would rather write a letter a minute a thousand times than be confined only to his mind, unable to talk to anyone, until the end of his days.
CHAUDHARY, U., VLACHOS, I., ZIMMERMANN, JB and others. Spelling interface using intracortical signals in a fully blocked patient enabled through auditory neurofeedback training. Nature CommunicationsVolume 13, Article No. 1,236 (2022), 9 pages, March 22, 2022. Available here.
Brain implant restores “voice” to paralyzed patient