Paralyzed Patients Can Communicate Easily with New Technology

A piece of high-tech headgear is offering new hope to those suffering from locked-in syndrome, by translating their brain activity into messages that can be communicated to others.

Researchers say the brain-computer interface device, which looks like a swim cap studded with suction cups, is capable of accurately deciphering a patient’s “yes” or “no” answers to questions 70 per cent of the time. The device could open new doors for totally paralyzed patients who cannot communicate through blinking, but who otherwise retain full awareness and cognition – a condition called completely locked-in syndrome, or CLIS.

Responses are displayed on a computer connected to the interface. The four patients involved in the study all communicated that they were “happy,” according to a news release.

“We were initially surprised at the positive responses when we question the four completely locked-in patients about their quality of life,” professor Niels Birbaumer, lead author of the study, said in the news release. “What we observed was that as long as they received satisfactory care at home, they found their quality of life acceptable.”

Birbaumer suggests the brain-computer interface could lead to significant improvements in the day-to-day lives of completely locked-in patients, by allowing them to say “yes” or “no” to questions.

“The striking results overturn my own theory that people with complete locked-in syndrome are not capable of communication,” Birbaumer said.

The Wyss Center plans to improve on the technology so it can one day be used at hospitals to communicate with patients paralyzed by ALS, stroke or spinal cord injuries.