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ALS Patients Can Now Play Games With First Brain Implant

Nov 14, 2016 05:50 AM EST
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A new brain implant has allowed an ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) patient to be the first woman to use an eye tracking device that takes a minute to spell a word.

According to New Scientist, HB has all of her muscles paralyzed. 

She decided to try the implant because she wanted to contribute to the potential improvements for other patients like her. The surgeries had her barely feel the implant, and the hardware appears to be easy to use.

The software was improved by the Utrecht NeuroProsthesis (UNP) team. The implant has allowed her to communicate outdoors even without her eye-tracking computer. She has now become more independent and confident outside the house. 

HB did explain the technology is not perfect, as some clicks are still recognized as false-positives. Regardless, it made her special to be the first and did want to be able to change the channel and drive her wheelchair.

The technology will allow ALS patients to have a semblance of ordinary life given their condition. ALS ravages nerve cells, which leaves people unable to control much of their muscles. HB already lost the ability to breathe in a few years.

Nick Ramsey from the University Medical Center Utrecht in Netherlands witnessed HB when she was still using an eye-tracking device. It takes her a minute to type up a word which, while it's long for other people's standards, is life-changing for people like her who also get to lose the ability to move their eyes. 

HB's new implant directed electrodes on the surface of the brain, underneath the skull. This makes it invasive than EEG caps, but not as much as deep brain stimulation.

The brain activity is recorded by the electrode and is fed through a small device via a signal. This is implanted on devices such as pacemakers, which sends it to an external tablet as a "click." This click can be utilized with a variety of functions. 

HB had two electrodes in her brain, one that controls her right hand and the other in an area that can count backward. After training sessions, she can now play whack-a-mole and Pong and even spell words.

She can generate one signal per day since day one and had an accuracy of 95 percent after six months.

The uncomplicated nature of the device makes it recommended for home use. However, the device is unlikely able to accomplish complex tasks such as controlling robotic limbs. This is the next step of the research among experts in the field. 

Regardless, having improved the software of the tablet may allow the next volunteer to learn how to use the device more quickly. 

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