As with most healthcare fields and practices, technology is one thing that constantly pushes the envelope of available treatments. While there will certainly always be a demand for any range of PT, OT, and SLP professionals, some therapies might only reach their true potential through emerging technologies like brain-computer interfaces.
Whether it’s using iPads to help with language acquisition or even exoskeletons for mobility, it’s clear that we are headed toward a more technologically mediated therapeutic landscape. Now, a new study has produced some promising results for the use of brain-computer interfaces in those suffering from varying degrees of neurological paralysis.
Advancing Brain-Computer Interfaces
Previously, brain-computer interfaces had very little foundation on which to continue building toward viable options for people. Essentially, these interfaces consist of implants with the ability to translate human brain waves into actions understood by computers and other external devices. The result is people being able to control language software, and even robotic limbs and similar machines.
Recent confidence in these technologies come from the story of a 48-year old woman with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS, a disease causing total paralysis, muscle weakness, and an eventual respiratory failure. Over a period of 28 weeks, she was able to control a brain-computer interface with 95 percent accuracy, using only her thoughts and electrodes implanted on the surface of her brain. The implant made contact with portions of the brain responsible for controlling the right hand, as well as an area associated with our ability to count backward.
So far, many brain-computer interfaces have relied on constant recalibrations by teams of technicians in order to get them functioning as intended. Furthermore, each person has a unique chemistry and varying medical condition, so it’s been extremely difficult to pinpoint what works and what doesn’t. This recent success story is reinvigorating the push for the use of brain-computer interfaces when few other options are available. Before she had the opportunity to participate in this study, this woman could only communicate via an eye-tracking device used to painstakingly spell out words and sentences.
Nick Ramsey, a neuro-psychopharmacologist from the Brain Center of University Medical Center Utrecht wanted to design a system that was simple and affordable for patients to use at home.
“We’ve built a system that’s reliable and autonomous that works at home without any extra help. There’s not a single system that even comes close to this.”
For those with advanced ALS, life consists of being “locked in” to one’s own body with only basic control over relatively involuntary processes like blinking, breathing, and few others. Technology like brain-computer interfaces could represent a way out of this state, if only through the increased ability to communicate.
A Future of Digitized Thought
With tech-giants like Elon Musk teasing a product called “neural lace,” it seems that we’ll be seeing a lot more of these devices being researched and developed. Such potential applications could include wirelessly controlling devices through thought, gaining diagnostic insight into our own health, and even potentiating the release of specific chemicals in our brains – all truly remarkable prospects!
Still, we’re quite a way out from buying brain-computer interfaces like we would a smartphone. For now, we’ll continue to watch how these devices can help those working in various therapeutic fields or acting as caregivers for people with debilitating diseases like ALS.