Unique brain-driven speech computer unlocks isolation of ALS patient

Ground-breaking research by the University Medical Centre Utrecht has pioneered a speech computer driven by thought. The UMC Utrecht placed a brain implant in an ALS patient, who is able to operate a speech computer by thought. The patient is a 58-year-old woman living on a respirator and totally paralysed by the disease. For the first time this technique has been perfected so that the patient can communicate independently with family and carers at home.

Brain driven speech computer

Brain driven speech computer

Image: UMC Utrecht

Intensive training

Surgeons placed electrodes in the patient’s brain which pick up brain activity. A sender was also placed under her collar bone. After intensive training to perfect the technique, the patient can send a signal to a speech computer by moving her fingers in her thoughts, in the same way a mouse click does. Meanwhile on the screen of the speech computer letters of the alphabet light up. The patient selects the letter by thought as the letter she wants lights up. Words are formed letter by letter and then spoken by the computer.

Remote control

The UMC Utrecht’s research institute Brain Center Rudolf Magnus has been researching this technology for many years. Up to now many institutes have tested bathing caps with electrodes operating computers. The operation of a computer via implanted electrodes under the skull is unique.

Neuro-science Professor Nick Ramsey says, “In fact this patient has been given a kind of remote control in her head, with which she can operate a speech computer without using her muscles.”

The technique can be used in any patient who is paralysed regardless of the cause. If the procedure proves to be a success in three patients, researchers hope to start a larger international trial. This research has been published in the medical journal New England Journal of Medicine.