01/02/2017 09:31 GMT

Locked-In Syndrome Patients Finally Able To Communicate Using Groundbreaking New Device

"We could restore useful communication in completely locked-in states"

Four patients with complete locked-in syndrome have finally been able to communicate with those around them.

Doctors at the Wyss Center for Bio and Neuroengineering in Geneva, Switzerland have used a groundbreaking new system which closely monitors the brain and allows the patients to answer questions with either “Yes” or “No”.

They were then able to hold simple conversations with the patients. For many of them this will be the first time they’ve been able to communicate with the outside world for years.

Wyss Center
The BCI technique in the study used near-infrared spectroscopy (NIRS) combined with electroencephalography (EEG) to measure blood oxygenation and electrical activity in the brain.

The trial examined patients with complete locked-in syndrome a condition where patients are even unable to move their eyes.

By using a non-invasive brain-computer interface (BCI) however the doctors were actually able to measure responses based on the blood oxygen levels in the brain.

What makes these findings so impressive is that previously many believed those with complete locked-in were incapable of the goal directed thinking in order to provide answers to questions.

Wyss Center

The extensive investigations were carried out on four patients with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) - a progressive motor neuron disease that completely destroys the part of the nervous system responsible for movement.

Once they started to establish a communicative link with the patients what came next surprised the doctors.

Upon being asked if they were happy, all four patients said “Yes”.

“We were initially surprised at the positive responses when we questioned the four completely locked-in participants about their quality of life. All four had accepted artificial ventilation in order to sustain their life when breathing became impossible so, in a sense, they had already chosen to live,” explains Professor Niels Birbaumer, Senior Author of the paper.

“What we observed was as long as they received satisfactory care at home, they found their quality of life acceptable. It is for this reason, if we could make this technique widely clinically available, it would have a huge impact on the day-to-day life of people with complete locked-in syndrome”.

While other brain computer interfaces have allowed patients with locked-in syndrome to communicate with the wider world the authors of the paper believe this is the first time ever that patients with total body paralysis have been able to communicate.

“If we can replicate this study in more patients I believe we could restore useful communication in completely locked-in states for people with motor neuron diseases.” said Birbaumer.