Totally Paralyzed Patients Can Now “Speak” Thanks To Groundbreaking New Technology

Published February 1, 2017
Updated March 25, 2018

A new brain computer interface has made it possible for the first time for doctors to communicate with patients who have no muscle control.

Brain Computer

Wyss CenterShown on a model, the cap tracks blood oxygen levels and electrical activity to translate “yes” or “no” answers.

People with locked-in syndrome suffer from total paralysis of all voluntary muscles.

Though their thinking, hearing and feeling abilities are unaffected, those with this rare misfortune cannot breathe, chew, swallow, or speak.

Though most victims can communicate with their eyes, those who have completely locked-in syndrome (CLIS) have lost even that ability. Without optic control, these particularly unlucky souls have previously had absolutely no way to express the thoughts trapped inside their heads.

Until now.

A ground-breaking technological advancement has allowed doctors to read these unwillingly silent people’s minds using a brain computer interface, according to the report in PLOS Journal.

“It’s the first sign that completely locked-in syndrome may be abolished forever, because with all of these patients, we can now ask them the most critical questions in life,” Niels Nirbaumer, the neuroscientist who led the research, said.

Though the questions are important, the answers are still simple. The technology only allows patients to respond “yes” or “no.”

As part of the original test study, which was conducted in Switzerland, three women and one man were trained to use the brain-reading device.

The computer, in the form of a sensor-cover cap placed on their heads, measured changes in blood oxygen levels and electrical activity in the brain to determine the differences between when the patients were thinking “yes” and when they were thinking “no.”

“Is Berlin the capital of France?” researchers asked. “Is your husband’s name Jachim?”

All four patients were able to correctly answer the questions 70% of the time using only their thoughts.

When they moved on to more personal questions, researchers and some family members were surprised by what they learned:

When asked if they were happy, each test subject said yes.

“We find that they see life in a more positive way,” Birbaumer said – adding that all of the subjects had become paralyzed as a result of the degenerative disease ALS. Because of the nature of the illness, they had all known that their muscle control and breathing would eventually fail and had personally chosen to live off of ventilators.

Birbaumer hopes that he can use similar technology to allow CLIS patients to communicate more complex thoughts.

For now, though, everyone seems thrilled with even little bits of insight into these patient’s minds. Except, that is, for a man named Mario.

The boyfriend of the male test subject’s daughter, Mario was hoping to finally get the dad’s blessing for marriage. But when researchers asked the participant if he would agree to the union, the answer was “no,” nine times out of ten.

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Savannah Cox
Savannah Cox holds a Master's in International Affairs from The New School as well as a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, and now serves as an Assistant Professor at the University of Sheffield. Her work as a writer has also appeared on DNAinfo.