Human Interest

New mind-reading device helps paralyzed patients communicate their will to live

According to new research in Europe, people who suffer from “locked-in syndrome” and have been unable to communicate because of lack of muscle control, including being unable to move their eyes, can now let doctors and family members know that they do wish to live.

In 2010, British neuroscientist Adrian Owen determined that by reading the changes in blood flow in certain parts of the brain, a person who had been diagnosed as being in a “vegetative” state was in fact conscious. Based on that research, the new mind-reading device, designed by neuroscientist Niels Birbaumer, connects a patient’s brain to a computer to read blood flow and electrical waves. Four patients in the study were asked a series of yes or no questions over the course of ten days. Then they were asked if they love life and if they are happy.

Three of the four patients answered yes, and the fourth patient was not asked open-ended questions because her parents thought she was in too fragile of an emotional state at the time.  She completed just 20 of the 46 sessions of the study.

Not only did the Birbaumer’s study show that being unable to move does not mean people are unable to think or enjoy life, but the families of the patients were finally able to communicate with their loved ones after years.

Birbaumer told MIT Technology Review that “the relief was enormous” for the family members to learn that not only were they able to communicate, but that their loved ones were happy and wanted to remain alive on ventilators.

This new technology could help patients who have complete paralysis due to ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease), stroke, or accident. In addition, Birbaumer told MIT Technology Review that the device could be used as a diagnostic tool in the future to determine if a person is conscious – which has a misdiagnosis rate of about 40%. Birbaumer also aims to improve the technology to allow patients to communicate beyond yes or no questions.

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