This computer makes it possible for paralyzed patients to communicate

glowing eeg cap
Credit: Wyss Center

One of the great benefits of the computer age? Easy communication across great distances.

But some people can't even speak with people right next to them. To help solve that problem, researchers in Europe have developed a device that helps paralyzed patients communicate. But how does it work?

In IT Blogwatch, we listen.

So what is going on? Renee Morad has the background:

Patients with complete locked-in syndrome experience paralysis...They cannot move, speak...or even move their eyes to communicate...doctors and researchers believed...these people were unhappy with their quality of life and did not have the goal-directed thinking necessary to communicate.
...
Now, a...study conducted by researchers at the Wyss Center for Bio and Neuroengineering in Geneva, Switzerland, has...[determined]...patients with complete locked-in syndrome do obtain the goal-oriented thinking necessary to express their thoughts...and they say they're "happy," despite their condition.

How did the researchers determine the answers to those questions? Adarsh Verma has the details:

European researchers have devised a brain-computer interface that helps in communicating with the patients in locked-in state...This brain-computer interface is worn...like a swimming cap. It measures the electrical waves coming out of the brain and blood flow using a near-infrared spectroscopy and electroencephalography.

But how exactly does the brain-computer interface help people communicate? Emily Mullin explains:

Researchers...[used] a brain-computer interface to communicate with four people completely locked in after losing all voluntary movement due to Lou Gehrig’s disease...To verify the four could communicate, [neuroscientist Niels] Birbaumer’s team asked patients...to respond yes or no to statements such as “You were born in Berlin” or “Paris is the capital of Germany” by modulating their thoughts and altering the blood-flow pattern. The answers relayed through the system were consistent about 70 percent of the time, substantially better than chance.

So how did they ultimately determine that the patients were happy? Jacqueline Howard is in the know:

As the patients thought about their answers, the researchers analyzed changes in the system's measurements to determine whether the patient was thinking about a yes or no response...the system could not decipher specific letters or words.
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Once the researchers determined that the patients were trained on how to respond to the questions, they repeatedly asked open questions with no known answers, such as "Are you happy?"...the patients repeatedly answered quality of life questions with a "yes" response, indicating that they had a positive attitude toward life.

The families of the patients were able to determine some of the opened-ended questions being asked. James Gallagher shares what one family wanted to know:

In one case a daughter wanted the blessing of her completely locked-in father before marrying her boyfriend...nine times out of 10 the answer came back no.
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