The Future is Now: Brain Implants Allow ALS Patient to Communicate

James Radke, PhD

This week in the New England Journal of Medicine, Vansteensel et al report on a patient with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) who can communicate via ‘brain implants’ that allow her brain to communicate with a computer to generate a dialog.
The brain implants are not geared toward the language center but are in the motor cortex to allow the patient to move her finger and virtually type a sentence.
Her typing speed is a bit slow (2 letters per minute) but as the technology advances, this brain-computer interface could lead to incredible breakthroughs that will allow people with severe paralysis who have lost the ability to communicate.
Below is short video of the patient communicating filmed by the University Medical Center Utrecht


Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS)

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) or "Lou Gehrig's Disease," is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. Motor neurons reach from the brain to the spinal cord and from the spinal cord to the muscles throughout the body.
Muscle weakness or stiffness are early symptoms of ALS. The Weakness progressing, leading to wasting and paralysis of the muscles of the limbs and trunk as well as those that control vital functions such as speech, swallowing and eventually, breathing.

As the disease progresses patients lose the ability to speak. Current options for them to communicate may include eye tracking programs.

Life expectancy of an ALS patient following diagnosis is 2 to 5 years however, some can live longer. According to the ALS Association, 5% of ALS patients live 20 years after diagnosis. The two main types of ALS are: 1) Sporadic (90 to 95% of  cases) and 2) Familial (5 to 10% of  cases). Approximately 5,600 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with ALS each year and 30,000 have the disease at any given time.


Vansteensel MJ, Pels EGM, Bleichner MG, et al. Fully Implanted Brain–Computer Interface in a Locked-In Patient with ALS. New Engl J Med.  Published online ahead of print Nov 12, 2016. DOI: 10.1056/NEJMoa1608085

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