Thanks to the wonders of science, a paralyzed man who cannot speak is able to communicate with the world once more — and now, it’s Miller Time for him.
According to a March report in the U.K. Independent, the unnamed man — who is in a “locked-in” state due to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease — has been able to talk with his caretakers using electrode arrays implanted in his brain, a major first.
One of the thoughts he has relayed? “I want a beer.”
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According to the Independent, the 36-year-old man had been able to use his eyes to communicate, but when he lost the capacity to move them, he was left without the ability to “talk” with anyone else.
Two of the arrays were surgically implanted in his brain in March 2019. With the electrode implants, he can now make his thoughts known, albeit at one character per minute.
He may have requested a cold one, but he had other things to ask for, too.
He said he wanted to listen to the band Tool at a “loud” volume. (Which, as anyone who’s familiar with the band knows, is really the only way to listen to them.) He also asked for a curry and for his mom to give him a head massage.
Grub has been a main concern, with the patient letting his caregivers know what he wants to be fed through his tubes. “For food I want to have curry with potato then Bolognese and potato soup,” one message read.
This is the first time an electrode brain implant has been used on a locked-in patient.
“Ours is the first study to achieve communication by someone who has no remaining voluntary movement and hence for whom the [brain-computer interface] is now the sole means of communication,” said Dr. Jonas Zimmermann, a senior neuroscientist at the Wyss Center for Bio and Neuroengineering in Geneva.
However, getting to the point where he could communicate fully wasn’t an easy task.
“It took three months of unsuccessful attempts before a configuration was achieved that allowed the patient to use brain signals to produce a binary response to a speller program, answering ‘yes’ or ‘no’ when presented with letters,” the Independent reported.
“It took another three weeks to produce the first sentences, and over the next year the patient produced dozens of sentences.”
While patients with ALS generally have a lifespan of two to five years after diagnosis, some can live significantly longer. Physicist Stephen Hawking is the most famous long-lived ALS patient, having survived 55 years after he was first diagnosed.
For longer-lived patients, this case represents a major breakthrough.
“This study answers a long-standing question about whether people with complete locked-in syndrome — who have lost all voluntary muscle control, including movement of the eyes or mouth — also lose the ability of their brain to generate commands for communication,” Zimmermann said.
As the man gained the ability to communicate once more, he began relaying instructions about his care — he wanted his head kept elevated and straight when he had visitors — and his food choices.
Perhaps most importantly, he was able to communicate with his wife and 4-year-old son. His message for his kid? “I love my cool son.”
Researchers in the case study said their system can even be used in the home and to conduct remote sessions with caregivers via laptop.
“This is an important step for people living with ALS who are being cared for outside the hospital environment,” said George Kouvas, the Wyss Center’s chief technology officer.
“This technology, benefiting a patient and his family in their own environment, is a great example of how technological advances in the BCI field can be translated to create direct impact.”
And that direct impact for patients with locked-in syndrome goes far beyond just ordering a beer. This would have been impossible not too long ago, after all.
Hopefully, even better tools will come along soon.
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