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Brain Implant Allows Fully Paralysed Patient To Communicate

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Brain Implant Allows Fully Paralysed Patient To Communicate

A group of biological engineers have created a brain implant that has allowed a paralysed man to communicate.

Dr Ujwal Chaudhary was working at the University of Tubingen and the Wyss Center for Bio and Neuroengineering in Geneva when he made the discovery in 2020.

With his head connected to a computer via a cable, Dr Chaudhary's 34-year-old paralysed patient – who was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, which essentially meant he was in a medically locked-in state unable to even move his eyeballs – chose the letters 'E, A, D', which were spoken aloud by a synthetic voice on the computer.

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Aided by the technology, the man was able to formulate letters, words and later sentences.

A brain implant has reportedly been created with allowed a paralyzed man to communicate. Credit: Chaudhary et. al/ Nature Communications
A brain implant has reportedly been created with allowed a paralyzed man to communicate. Credit: Chaudhary et. al/ Nature Communications

Dr. Jens Lehmberg, neurosurgeon and co-author of the study, implanted two small electrodes in the areas of the brain that control movement, the New York Times reports.

In order to try and generate a brain signal, the patient was asked to imagine moving his limbs and tongue. When this proved difficult to achieve, the patient was then required to train himself to manipulate his own brain activity using a technique called auditory neurofeedback, in a bid to match the pitch of a 'target note' by imagining moving his eyes.

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In just 12 days he managed to match the second to the first, with positive results having occurred as soon as day one.

With the help of colours to group certain letters, the paralysed man developed the technique to form words and sentences, such as: "For food I want to have curry with potato then Bolognese and potato soup.”

The man was able to form comprehensible sentences 44 days out of 107 days he spent testing the technique, even reaching a speed of one character per minute.

A diagram showing how a brain implant allowed a paralyzed man to communicate. Credit: Chaudhary et. al/ Nature Communications
A diagram showing how a brain implant allowed a paralyzed man to communicate. Credit: Chaudhary et. al/ Nature Communications
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According to Dr Niels Birbaumer, the study's leader and former neuroscientists at the University of Tubingen, the research marks the first ever time a patient in a fully locked-in state has been able to communicate with the outside world to that extent.

Two previous experiments conducted by Dr Chaudhary and Dr Birbaumer appeared to have similar results to the most recent study allowing locked-in patients to communicate. However, the lack of analysis or video footage of the patients was deemed by the German Research Foundation as a breach of scientific conduct. In 2018, concerns about the scientists were also raised by whistle-blower Marin Spuler.

Dr Chaudhary and Dr Birbaumer were subsequently banned from submitting proposals for three years and five years respectively.

A diagram showing the results of a brain implant in a paralyzed man, which has reportedly allowed him to communicate. Credit: Chaudhary et. al/ Nature Communications
A diagram showing the results of a brain implant in a paralyzed man, which has reportedly allowed him to communicate. Credit: Chaudhary et. al/ Nature Communications
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However, the duo refused to retract their papers, and in response to the sanctions imposed by the German Research Foundation, Dr Birbaumer filed a lawsuit against the organisation.

Dr Chaudhary believes that the results of the suit, which are anticipated as being released in the upcoming two weeks, will be in Dr Birbaumer's favour.

Marco Finetti, spokesperson for the German Research Foundation, stated that the organisation was not aware that the latest study had been published.

The study was published in Nature Communications on Tuesday, 22 March.

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A spokesperson for Nature Communications stated: "We have rigorous policies to safeguard the integrity of the research we publish, including to ensure that research has been conducted to a high ethical standard and is reported transparently."

A timeline showing which days a paralyzed man was able to communicate with the help a brain implant. Credit: Chaudhary et. al/ Nature Communications
A timeline showing which days a paralyzed man was able to communicate with the help a brain implant. Credit: Chaudhary et. al/ Nature Communications

The study is set to be investigated in the forthcoming months by the German Research Foundation.

If the study is confirmed as being scientifically valid, Steven Laureys, neurologist and research leader of the Coma Science Group at the University of Liège, Belgium, noted that it is 'a game-changer'.

As well as having aided the 34-year-old medically locked-in patient to communicate, it could offer hope to other unresponsive patients who are either slightly conscious or completely comatose.

However, its authors noted that it will need to be tested on more than one patient.

The procedure is also noted as being 'risky' by Dr Jonas Zimmermann, co-author of the study and neuroscientist at the Wyss, who warned that it's 'very dangerous to create false hope'.

Neil Thakur, chief mission officer of the ALS Association, also cautioned: "This approach is experimental, so there’s still a lot we need to learn."

If you have a story you want to tell, send it to UNILAD via [email protected]  

Featured Image Credit: Wyss Center

Topics: News, Health, Science, Technology

Poppy Bilderbeck
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