The device allowed him to communicate simple requests, such as "massages," "soup," or "beer." This is the first occurrence in which a paralyzed person used a neural interface to communicate actual words, according to a new study.
"We didn't do this for fun, or to advance technology, or for publishing papers," German neuroscientist Niels Birbaumer told STAT News on Tuesday. "We do these things because we want these people to be alive, even if society doesn't want them to be."
The patient was a 30-year-old German man diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis in 2015, according to the paper published in Nature Communications on Tuesday. ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease, is a rare neurodegenerative disease that slowly breaks down the neurons that manage motor skills. The disease progressed quickly, with the man losing his ability to speak and move. He has also used a ventilator to breathe since July 2016, according to MIT Technology Review.
While the man initially used eye-tracking devices to communicate, his condition deteriorated in 2017 to the point that eye movement was not viable. His family sought the assistance of the neuroscientist Niels Birbaumer and Ujwal Chaudhary, who operated the tech nonprofit group ALS Voice gGmbH.
While the pair attempted to improve the man's eye-movement-tracking hardware, that method became untenable as he slowly lost control of his ability to move his eyes. The scientists proposed installing an electrode into his brain as a last resort that would allow him some simple communication options by translating levels of brain activity into ascending or descending tones. The man first used these tones to communicate simple notions, such as "yes" and "no." However, Birbaumer and Chaudhary eventually expanded the tones into a system that allowed the man to spell.
With some time and training, the man soon figured out how to transmit simple messages, researchers said. The man's first sentence translated to "boys, it works so effortlessly." He's also used the technology to ask family members to watch movies with him, request food, and express his desire for a larger bed.
Researchers hope to develop a catalog of frequently used words to allow the software to autocomplete words and sentences for the man, Chaudhary said.
Birbaumer has been accused of scientific misconduct. His claims of providing communication tools to the completely paralyzed were based on incomplete data and flawed results, Germany's main research agency determined in 2019. The researchers who reviewed the paper described Birbaumer's recently filed work as "legitimate, careful, and detailed," according to STAT News.