Brain–computer interface offers paralyzed patients improved quality of
3 November 2006
Tuebingen, Germany. A brain–computer interface
installed early enough in patients with neuron-destroying diseases can
enable them to be taught to communicate through an electronic device and
slow destruction of the nervous system.
Fundamental theories regarding
consciousness, emotion and quality of life in sufferers of paralysis from
Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS, also known as 'Lou Gerhig's disease')
are being challenged based on new research on brain-computer interaction.
ALS is a progressive disease that destroys neurons affecting movement.
The study appears in the latest issue of Psychophysiology. The
article reviews the usefulness of currently available brain-computer
–interfaces (BCI), which use brain activity to communicate through external
devices, such as computers.
The research focuses on a condition called the completely locked-in state
(CLIS, a total lack of muscle control). In a CLIS situation, intentional
thoughts and imagery can rarely be acted upon physically and, therefore, are
rarely followed by a stimulus. The research suggests that as the disease
progresses and the probability for an external event to function as a link
between response and consequence becomes progressively smaller, it may
eventually vanish altogether.
Researchers have found that by implementing a brain-computer –interface
before the completely locked-in state occurs, a patient can be taught to
communicate through an electronic device with great regularity. The
continued interaction between thought, response and consequence is believed
to slow the destruction of the nervous system.
The findings are also raising a number of new questions about the quality of
life amongst paralysis sufferers. Patients surveyed were found to be much
healthier mentally than psychiatrically depressed patients without any
life-threatening bodily disease. Only 9% of ALS patients showed long
episodes of depression and most were during the period following diagnosis
and a period of weeks after tracheotomy.
“Most instruments measuring depression and quality of life are invalid for
paralyzed people living in protected environments because most of the
questions do not apply to the life of a paralyzed person. Special
instruments had to be developed,” says Niels Birbaumer, Ph.D., author of the
This contrasts previously accepted notions as many doctors believe that the
quality of life in total paralysis is extremely low and continuation of life
is a burden for the patient. The study challenges the myth of helplessness,
depression and poor quality of life in paralyzed persons that lead to
hastened decisions on euthanasia.