The carrier of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), which took away almost all movements in his body, physicist Stephen Hawking managed to communicate through a speech generator. This system used an infrared sensor in the ghost’s glasses to track tiny, barely perceptible movements on Hawking’s face. The British physicist managed to convey to the generator what he wanted to say with the slightest twitch of his cheek.
In the near future, patients with this degenerative disease that affects the nervous system, causing irreversible motor paralysis, may have a much easier way of “talking.” This is thanks to brain-computer interface technology, which practically reads an individual’s mind – a futuristic dream that has just become reality.
Earlier this July, at Mount Sinai West Hospital in New York, an ALS patient received an organ-computer interface implant into a blood vessel in his brain—a product of technology startup Synchron. This device, called a stentrode, uses 16 electrodes to monitor brain activity and record the firing of neurons when a person is thinking. It can then read the signals emitted by the neurons, amplify them and send them to a computer or smartphone via Bluetooth.
This is how the stentrode translates the individual’s thoughts, allowing the person to regain abilities that the disease has already taken away. The patient in the New York hospital is already in an advanced stage of sclerosis, he has completely lost the ability to speak and move. But Synchron’s doctors and researchers hope he can communicate via email and text messages, just by thinking. An expectation that has reason to exist.
Before this American patient, Synchron had already implanted its devices in four ALS patients in Australia. And the results seemed like a miracle: overcoming their paralysis and loss of speech, they were able to perform tasks such as sending WhatsApp messages and shopping online.
And this considering that stentrode still needs to improve its computing power. Currently, implant patients have to select letters with their thoughts, one at a time, on a screen – the device does not translate entire sentences.
Synchron’s device is not the first in the world to realize this brain-computer interface to improve the quality of life of people with disabilities. There is already a technology, known as the Utah Matrix, but it is more limited and far more invasive. It requires doctors to cut the person’s scalp and pierce the skull to insert needles into the brain. They are then connected to a lemon-sized device on top of the person’s head.
With the Synchron interface, the device is inserted in a manner similar to the implantation of a coronary stent. The procedure takes a few minutes and does not require cutting the skull.
The doctor makes an incision in the patient’s neck and introduces a stentrode with a catheter, through the jugular vein, into a blood vessel in the motor cortex. As the catheter is withdrawn, the stentrode opens into a hollow, cylindrical wire mesh (see figure). And then it begins to connect with the outer edges of the blood vessel.
Another procedure connects the stentrode via a wire to a computer device implanted in the patient’s chest. To do this, the surgeon creates a tunnel for the wire and a pocket for the device under the skin, similar to what is done to place a pacemaker.
Despite the excitement about the activity that ALS patients could develop thanks to the implant, these first tests are more focused on checking how the human body responds to the stentrode and how clear the brain signals are.
That’s the beginning. But it may raise hope for individuals with the dreaded amyotrophic lateral sclerosis in their ability to communicate.
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