People with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, which is also known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s Disease, often lose the ability to speak as the muscles in the face and tongue stop working. They are left with a healthy, active brain that is not able to communicate. Researchers at the Wadsworth Center, which is part of the New York State Health Department, are working on a device that will soon provide a direct connection from the brain to a computer.
ALS is a neuromuscular disease that causes a healthy brain to lose touch with the body it lives in. While the brain continues to function normally, the nerves that control muscle movement gradually deteriorate so the signals from the brain never get to the muscles. Without instructions from the brain, muscles are not able to move. So a person with ALS gradually loses the ability to move any muscles, including the muscles of the face and tongue required for speech.
Computer-aided speech is not new to patients with ALS. Devices currently exist that allow patients with very limited ability for movement to control a mouse to select preset words or letters on a computer screen. Some devises track eye movement to select the word or letter the user is looking at. Others use tiny movements of an eyebrow to control the cursor. Using these devises, patients are able to compose text that can be read aloud by the computer interface to substitute as speech.
But what happens when even these tiny movements are no longer possible? The Brain-Connection Interface (BCI) currently under development in Albany, N.Y. may be the solution. The device consists of a laptop computer, an amplifier, a 20-inch monitor, and a cap with electrodes that must be worn by the user. Once the cap is fitted on the user’s head and the system is turned on, the user’s brain is in full control.
How BCI works
Because the electrical energy in the brain changes depending on what the person is doing, the BCI system can be taught what an individual’s brain scan or EEG looks like when he or she is concentrating on a particular item.