BCI lets completely “locked-in” man communicate with his son, ask for a beer

The Wyss Center for Bio and Neuroengineering has developed a communication platform for people with complete locked-in syndrome.

A 36-year-old German man in a completely locked-in state was outfitted with a novel brain-computer interface (BCI) system that relies on auditory feedback. The man learned to alter his brain activity in response to that auditory feedback to compose simple messages. He used this ability to ask for a beer, for his caretakers to play his favorite rock band, and to communicate with his young son, according to a recent paper published in Nature Communications.

BCIs interact with brain cells, recording the electrical activity of neurons and translating those signals into action. Such systems generally involve electrode sensors to record neuronal activity, a chipset to transmit the signals, and computer algorithms to translate the signals. BCIs can be external, similar to medical EEGs in that the electrodes are placed onto the scalp or forehead with a wearable cap, or they can be implanted directly into the brain. The former method is less invasive but can be less accurate because more noise interferes with the signals; the latter requires brain surgery, which can be risky. But for many paralyzed or locked-in patients, it’s an acceptable risk.

Last year, we witnessed two significant milestones on the BCI front. In March 2021, we reported on Neuralink’s demonstration of a monkey playing Pong using a brain implant connected wirelessly to the game’s computer. To achieve this, the company successfully miniaturized the device and got it to communicate wirelessly. In April 2021, researchers with the BrainGate Consortium successfully demonstrated a high-bandwidth wireless BCI in two tetraplegic human subjects.

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