Brain implant helps ALS patient "speak"

A high-tech implant has enabled a paralyzed woman with late-stage ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) to communicate through brain signaling, researchers say.

The degenerative disease robbed Hanneke De Bruijne, 58, of all voluntary muscle control -- including the ability to speak -- while leaving her mind intact.

But an experimental implant-software program allows the “locked-in” Dutch woman to type words without assistance.

The brain implant “lets her remote-control a computer with her brain, at home, without any help from researchers,” said study co-author Nick Ramsey.

“She can spell two letters per minute,” said Ramsey, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at University Medical Center Utrecht in the Netherlands. In this way, she can convey her needs to her caregivers, he said.

An estimated 30,000 Americans may have ALS, according to the ALS Association. It is also called Lou Gehrig’s disease after the legendary baseball player who died of the fatal disorder in 1941. People with the disease eventually lose the ability to swallow and breathe.

Ramsey explained that the cutting-edge setup enables the patient to “make brain-clicks with which she selects letters on a keyboard displayed on a computer screen, and that way spell letter by letter.”

One brain specialist applauded the study results.

The Dutch team has “wonderfully achieved a purposefully simple yet important goal,” said Dr. Leigh Hochberg, a neurologist and neuroengineer at Massachusetts General Hospital and Providence VA Medical Center.

“This is great research, not only in its thoughtful focus on a singular goal, but as another important step toward creating powerful, fully implanted neuro-prosthetic systems to help people with paralysis and locked-in syndrome,” said Hochberg.

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