It’s special to be the first.
Hanneke De Bruijne is completely paralyzed – including her breathing, which requires the use of a ventilator – by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) – the rapidly progressive and ultimately fatal neurological disease that attacks the nerve cells responsible for controlling voluntary muscle actions. But she is not completely locked in this non-functioning body. Hanneke can communicate with the world by thought alone because of implants in her brain.
They have not actually been useful for anyone. We thought, let’s make it simple and affordable for a patient who really needs it.
In a paper presented this week at the Society for Neuroscience annual meeting in San Diego, California, cognitive neuroimaging specialist David Ramsey of the Brain Center at University Medical Center Utrecht in the Netherlands describes how researchers at the Brain Center decided to simplify a complex tool to allow the 58-year-old woman to use a device controlled by brain waves without the need for a team of scientists and engineers constantly assisting her.
The first step for Hanneke was to have two electrodes implanted on the surface of her brain underneath her skull. One was over the region known to control movements of the right hand, the other over the area that facilitates counting backwards. Brain activity in these areas was picked up by the electrodes and fed to a wireless transmitter which sends them to a tablet computer. Hanneke then received intensive training on how to imagine using her right hand to play games like Whack-a-Mole and to spell words. According to Ramsey, Hanneke was able to control the device almost immediately.
The system really works. It surprised us.
Not only does it work, it works extremely well. Hanneke now achieves a 95 percent accuracy level at spelling words and can choose letters in less than 20 seconds. In addition, she can operate the device outdoors and in any kinds of light conditions – a problem with the eye-movement tracker she used previously. The system is compact and Hanneke can use it at home without assistance. It’s nearly invisible to those who don’t know she has brain implants.
Is this the tool of the future for the paralyzed? Possibly, but the future is still a long way off. While spelling is relatively easy, Hanneke has been using it for a year but still can’t count backwards. Playing Whack-a-Mole can help pass the time but it’s not the same as controlling robotic limbs or steering a wheelchair – a dream of Hanneke. Ramsey hopes to improve the software to allow her to do more.
With the right software, we could use it to, for example, turn off the TV. We could use icons to control appliances in the home. You could conceivably do a lot with a click.
Think about Hanneke De Bruijne and her brain-controlled device the next time you waste a few hours playing video games with your real hand.