With a Command an ALS Patient Translates His Thoughts

An amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) Patient Mark gets an ALS brain implant that allows him to speak his thoughts without any limitations imposed by his case.

Around 5,000 Americans are diagnosed with ALS each year, affecting the nerve cells in both the brain and spinal cord, resulting in the loss of muscle control. Unfortunately, the disease progressively worsens over time.

Given the strength of ALS, extensive research is deserved in order to find a cure and prevent it from claiming the lives of those diagnosed with it.

Process of the Minds’ Dictionary

Relaxed in a light teal sweater, a patient called Mark shows no obvious signs of having a ALS brain implant, stating he doesn’t sense it either. “I don’t feel anything in my brain,” he shared in an interview with CNN‘sChief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta.

Mark has two small scars—one on his right chest, the other on his neck—but no other visible traces of a BCI.

Synchron’s brain implant, known as a Stentrode, comprises a stent equipped with electrode sensors capable of detecting brain electrical activity. Synchron holds the patent for the Stentrode and was the inaugural recipient of FDA approval for commencing human trials for permanently implantable BCIs.

Unlike traditional brain surgery, it doesn’t require an open procedure. Instead, it traverses the body’s natural vein network, entering through Mark’s jugular vein. The device is then maneuvered through blood vessels to the brain’s pinnacle, resting in the sagittal sinus, a primary brain vein, nestled within the motor cortex, responsible for movement.

Each action a person performs, be it a handshake or a stride, emits a distinct electrical pattern in their brainwaves. The Stentrode learns to discern these patterns and compiles a personalized movement lexicon.

While there may be overarching electrical signatures for various movements, each individual’s is slightly unique, and the device highly altered to every individual.

When Mark sees a specific action, such as clicking on a computer screen, the Stentrode interprets the brain signal and identifies the intended movement. This message then travels via a thin cable to an internal transmitter, akin to a pacemaker, implanted surgically in his chest. The volume of data transmitted from Mark’s brain to the transmitter necessitates a wired connection to a computer. Positioned above the internal transmitter, an external transmitter swiftly conveys the brain signal to the computer. Currently, Mark must remain tethered to the computer to utilize the device.

Although, the objective is for forthcoming iterations to feature a wireless process, requiring only the Stentrode and an internal chest transmitter.

BCI Technology at a Rise

While still in the hush-hush low-low phase, the promise of the ALS brain implant technology has spurred several competing companies to develop this futuristic health technology.

Recent studies in Nature detailed how brain implants, aided by AI, enabled paralyzed patients to communicate through text or speech via an avatar at unprecedented speeds.

Investors are keen on neurotech startups and BCI-focused companies. Synchron has garnered $145 million since inception, as stated in a December 2022 announcement. Neuralink, co-founded by tech billionaire Elon Musk, raised over $323 million, per regulatory filing.

Oxley, Synchron’s CEO, noted the distinct approaches of major BCI players. Musk’s involvement with Neuralink has significantly raised awareness of the field. Oxley stressed the benefits of competition, anticipating diverse tech solutions for various applications.

As BCI’s commercialization accelerates, policymakers are acting. An UN-led conference in July emphasized the need for ethical guidelines. Guterres, UN Secretary-General, highlighted the rapid progress of neurotech, urging ethical safeguards.

Musk’s assertions about BCI’s potential have sparked debate. He announced Neuralink’s human brain implant but offered few details. Earlier, Musk claimed a trial participant could control a computer mouse with their mind.

Will It Be Accessible?

The remarkable achievements in MedTech that are being made fill one’s heart with immense gratitude. Every person reading this article has likely thought of a loved one along the way. There are countless questions that may have crossed your mind as a reader if you know someone diagnosed with ALS.

Yet, the main question remains: will these advancements be available and accessible to all? Will the pricing be affordable, or will it resemble cancer treatments that are readily available but inaccessible due to their high costs?

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