Sunday, 20 November 2016

Unlocking the brain

A paralysed woman has become the first to communicate just through thinking. The woman, named only as HB as she wishes to stay anonymous, has learned to use a special type of brain implant that allows her to communicate with those around her purely through her own thoughts, despite being completely paralysed.

HB was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS - the disease that was targeted with the 'ice bucket' campaign) in 2008, a disease that causes the death of neurons that control voluntary muscles. The condition also gets progressively worse over time, gradually weakening muscles more and more. In HB's case, she became wheelchair bound and lost her ability to breathe independently. The leader of the research, Nick Ramsey, described her as, "almost completely locked in".

New technology has helped a woman with 'locked-in syndrome' to communicate wirelessly
Source: The Telegraph/Alamy
Currently, there are devices that track eye movements of patients to help those with the same condition as HB. These allow a patient to move their eyes to choose letters on a screen, which then spell out words. However, this is often a long process and not appropriate for all; around a third of ALS patients can lose the ability to move their eyes, according to the New Scientist.

The new device, which doesn't rely on any physical movement from a patient, works by placing electrodes on the surface of the brain. The electrodes then record brain activity, which is sent to a device that is implanted under a patient's skin. Signals then travel wirelessly to an external computer, which translates the signals into other functions (such as the 'click' of a mouse on a screen, or the movement of the mouse to a letter on the screen). In other words, the patient is able to communicate with the screen wirelessly, just by thinking.

HB is the first to trial this new device, and so far it has been successful; after 6 months, she is now able to use the device with 95% accuracy. Similarly to eye tracking devices, this method requires a patient to select specific letters to spell out words or phrases, so it is still a relatively slow process. However, a major benefit of the new device is its portability; it can be used as efficiently outdoors as it can indoors. The currently available eye tracking devices are limited to settings with lighting that allowed the eye tracker to pick up movements - if it was particularly bright outside, the eye tracker would struggle to detect HB's eye moving to select letters.

The research into this new device and HB's condition are explained in the clip below from the New Scientist:

Whilst this new device isn't perfect, it's certainly a step in the right direction. Although only just presented at the Society for Neuroscience annual meeting last week, director of the research Ramsey suggested that honing the software could eventually lead to it being used to control household appliances, which would make a huge difference to ALS patients.

If you'd like to learn more, check out the Scientific American's article here, or the New Scientist's article here.

What do you think of this new research? Is it a step in the right direction? Or should we be doing more? Let me know in the comments!

P.S. Don't forget to follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook for lots more original neuroscience content!


  1. what an interesting article, nice to know how science is constantly moving forward and improving lives!

  2. I really liked the research. As a qualified psychologist these kind of topics intrigue me. Would love to read more.

    1. Thanks for your comment. I've put links to a few related articles within the post, but if you'd like to read more I also recommend checking out:
      - coverage of the topic by Neuroscience News
      - the original journal article

      Also, I cover similarly neuroscientific topics each week, so if you'd like to be notified whenever I write a new post, please subscribe to my blog - the button is on the right side bar! Thanks :) x

  3. Great post Emily. I think that to answer your question at the end of the article, this is certainly a great start, but we also certainly have many more things we could do to help them. I wonder if scientists could create a device that is still controlled by thinking, but is a full body robotic cast, in a way, that moves you when you think forward! or pick up that lemon! How much quicker is the new device in comparison to the old device that tracks eye movements? I am glad to see an example of scientists trying to help disabled people live better, and I am also glad to see yet another example of your amazing writing.