Up until recently, fully-paralyzed individuals were unable to speak and essentially trapped inside their own bodies, unable to communicate. Now, new technology is enabling people who are “locked in” to speak again.
Previously, paralysis sufferers who couldn’t move or communicate were a painful burden for family and friends who struggled — or in some cases, refused — to spend time with someone who cannot speak.
Now, thanks to a Brain Computer Interface, scientists can monitor brain patterns of locked-in patients in a non-invasive way. Before, BCI chips were inserted into a patient’s brain to quantify “yes” or “no” responses.
New machines are now able to detect blood flow to the brain for those same responses, without requiring surgery or invasive procedures necessary, and victims of paralysis can communicate using just their thoughts.
There are limitations as the technology is still in its early stages, for example researchers found only closed questions, instructing patients to focus their thoughts in a particular direction, worked best for clear, correct responses.
The most amazing aspect of BCI is that paralysis victims, when asked, expressed an overwhelming desire to live, despite their locked-in state.
“We were intially surprised at the positive responses when we question the four completely lock-in participants about their quality of life,” said Niels Birbaumer, lead author of the BCI paper.
“As long as [the patients] received satisfactory care at home, they found their quality of life acceptable. If we could make [the BCI] technique widely clinically available, it would have a huge impact on the day-to-day life of people with complete locked-in syndrome.”
Even just opening up a very basic form of communication, quality of life for locked-in sufferers has improved hugely. The scientists behind the breakthrough hope that this is just the beginning of returning communication to people who are fully paralyzed.