Locked-In Man ‘Speaks’ Through Brain Activity

A man in a completely “locked in” state has successfully communicated with his carers and family through brain signals alone. The technology worked without requiring even the eye movements of similar systems for people with near-complete paralysis.

The German man has a variant of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) that has gradually damaged his motor neurons to the point that he has no control over physical movement and very limited eyesight.

In March 2019 he was implanted with a brain-computer interface that works in a similar way to an EEG. In what must have been a painstaking process, he learned to “issue” brain signals such that the frequency of his neural firing corresponded to an audio feedback tone. In turn, these tones corresponded to individual letters.

After 18 days he was able to spell out individual words and over time increased the complexity of his communication, moving from a simple word of thanks to care staff to making requests for specific meals in his feeding tube and asking to hear his favorite band. After more than a year of improving the communication, he was able to ask his young son (translated) “Would you like to watch Disney’s Witch and Wizard with me on Amazon.”

The experts behind the technology make clear it is severely limited. It only works accurately because of the brain implantation (rather than wearing an electrode cap) and even after extensive practice, the man could only “speak” at a little over one character per minute. However, for his specific limited condition it was absolutely a case of being far better than nothing.

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