Advancing Humanist Technology for the Paralyzed

Last week researchers at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience announced that a woman suffering from an advanced “lock-in” stage of ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease), is now able to successfully communicate after receiving an experimental brain implant surgery.

Using electrodes in the area of the brain responsible for motor coordination of the hands, the implant translates the mental intention of moving a hand into cursor clicks on a tablet screen while displaying the letters of the alphabet for selection. The process is laborious, and about a minute is required to select just a single letter, but the iron will of the patient to live and communicate with her family makes it worth everything and more.

Prior to her operation, the patients was only able to communicate through a bulky eye-tracking camera that can’t operate in conditions with too much sunlight, confining her indefinitely to the indoors. With the new surgery, she is now able to enjoy going outside with her husband and children.

The patient, who wishes to remain anonymous, is incredibly brave to have undergone such an experimental and potentially dangerous surgery. In a touching interview with the New Scientist, she explained her decision to take the risk, saying that she wants “to contribute to possible improvements for people like me.” Her bravery will now pave the way for others not just with ALS but with any sort of paralysis wherein the mind is left intact and functional.

When the New Scientist asked her what improvements she would like to see this technology undergo, she responded, “I would like to change the television channel and my dream is to be able to drive my wheelchair.” These suggestions are certainly within the realm of possibility and hopefully will arrive in future updates, although the limit of such updates is often dictated by the extent of funding available to pursue development costs.

With the most recent estimates of some form of paralysis at approximately 5.6 million in the United States alone (that’s one in fifty Americans), this device and the ones that follow will allow for a huge improvement to the quality of life of paralyzed patients, because they provide them with more mobility. This is currently not possible with eye-tracking communication devices that are inoperable in bright light.

It is very refreshing to see the humanistic passion of these doctors and researchers who dedicate their lives to betterment of others through the development of these technologies. As researchers and doctors are able to find more ways to augment and restore damaged human functions with technology, those who suffer from these debilitating states will find increasing comfort from the restoration of communication with friends and family and improvement of quality of life that these devices enable. At the least, it certainly reminds us not to take even the seemingly littlest things in life for granted.