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In 2008, Hanneke de Bruijne was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. Over the next eight years, her life would change significantly as the nerves controlling her bodily movements degenerated. She would lose the ability to move her legs, arms, fingers and eventually even her face, leaving her locked inside her body, barely able to communicate with those around her. Breathing would require a mechanical ventilator.
But in 2015, she received a brain implant developed by researchers from University Medical Center Utrecht in the Netherlands that would change her life, bringing back the ability to communicate.
"The implant gives me freedom, independence and safety," de Bruijne wrote in an email composed on a tablet linked to her implant. "It enables me to enjoy my garden and going outdoors in nature."
According to a recent article in New Scientist magazine, the device is thought to be the first used in a patient’s daily life, without the need of daily recalibration that hampered earlier efforts with electrodes. Data on the device and its use was presented at the Society for Neuroscience 2016 Annual Meeting, running through today in San Diego.
When the electrode records brain activity, a signal is fed through a wire to a small device, which can be implanted under the skin of the chest, like a pacemaker. This device then wirelessly sends a signal to an external computer tablet, which can transform it into a simple “click”. Other software installed on the tablet can allow the click to be used for various things, such as playing a game or using a speller to select words and communicate.
Nick Ramsey and his colleagues hope to trial the system in other individuals. Now that his team has improved the tablet’s software, Ramsey expects the next volunteer to be able to learn to use the device more quickly. More sophisticated software that is better able to predict and complete words based on the first couple of letters could also speed things up.
They hope to develop software that can translate clicks into other functions. “With the right software, we could use it to, for example, turn off the TV,” says Ramsey. “We could use icons to control appliances in the home. You could conceivably do a lot with a click.”