Wyss Center
Wyss Center

New Technology "Reads" the Thoughts of ALS Patients

Wyss Center
Wyss Center

Communication can be incredibly limited in patients with advanced amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a degenerative motor neuron disease also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Those who can communicate minimally with eye movements are considered “locked in,” and those who can no longer communicate with eye blinks or eye rolls are referred to as having complete locked-in syndrome, or CLIS. Most of these patients are believed to remain cognitively aware but cannot communicate any thoughts or feelings to caregivers.

For CLIS patients, “quality of life depends on social care by the family and positive social attention from caretakers and friends,” Niels Birbaumer, senior research fellow in neuroscience and psychology at the Wyss Center in Geneva, Switzerland, tells mental_floss.

Researchers have continued to look for ways to offer these patients noninvasive methods of communicating with their caregivers and loved ones. Birbaumer and his colleagues’ new clinical trial offers some fresh hope to CLIS ALS patients with a new brain-computer technology that can essentially “read” the thoughts of these patients and translate their answers to caregivers through a computer interface. Their results were published today in the journal PLOS Biology [PDF].

The system takes the form of a noninvasive cap, worn on the head. Functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) determines changes in blood flow in the brain, and an electroencephalogram (EEG) hookup monitors sleep and electrical activity in the brain. It is not the first brain-computer interface that exists to help paralyzed patients communicate, but near-infrared spectroscopy is the only approach that has successfully enabled communication for CLIS patients.

The trial focused specifically on four patients with advanced ALS—two of them in permanent CLIS, and two who were close to entering CLIS, with unreliable communication. Three patients completed more than 46 sessions spread over several weeks, and one patient completed 20 sessions.

The participants trained over the course of several weeks by responding to 500 questions, such as "The capital of Germany is Paris." They also answered personal questions with known answers ("Your husband's name is Joachim") and unknown answers ("You want to be moved from left to right").

All questions were formatted to require either a true/false or yes/no response, which the patient gave by thinking the answer. “'Yes' and 'no' thinking produces different brain blood flow answers in the frontal part of the brain,” Birbaumer explains. “Each patient has a different answer pattern.”

The questions elicited correct responses 70 percent of the time.

Birbaumer says he was surprised by the results: “I had previously thought that people with complete locked-in syndrome are not capable of communication. In fact, we found that all four people we tested were able to answer the personal questions we asked them, using their thoughts alone.”

The next phase of the team's research will be to attempt to build a brain-computer interface “which allows CLIS patients to select letters and words with their brain,” for more robust and individualized communication. While this may involve invasive implantation, they will also try non-invasive methods, although “so far this was not possible.”

Birbaumer and his team would also like to take the knowledge they’ve gained with ALS CLIS patients and extend it to those who experience chronic strokes.

Whatever their next steps, this technology may allow people living in the silence of their own minds a chance to engage in life-improving social interaction.

Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
Bill Gates is Spending $100 Million to Find a Cure for Alzheimer's
Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Not everyone who's blessed with a long life will remember it. Individuals who live into their mid-80s have a nearly 50 percent chance of developing Alzheimer's, and scientists still haven't discovered any groundbreaking treatments for the neurodegenerative disease [PDF]. To pave the way for a cure, Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Bill Gates has announced that he's donating $100 million to dementia research, according to Newsweek.

On his blog, Gates explained that Alzheimer's disease places a financial burden on both families and healthcare systems alike. "This is something that governments all over the world need to be thinking about," he wrote, "including in low- and middle-income countries where life expectancies are catching up to the global average and the number of people with dementia is on the rise."

Gates's interest in Alzheimer's is both pragmatic and personal. "This is something I know a lot about, because men in my family have suffered from Alzheimer’s," he said. "I know how awful it is to watch people you love struggle as the disease robs them of their mental capacity, and there is nothing you can do about it. It feels a lot like you're experiencing a gradual death of the person that you knew."

Experts still haven't figured out quite what causes Alzheimer's, how it progresses, and why certain people are more prone to it than others. Gates believes that important breakthroughs will occur if scientists can understand the condition's etiology (or cause), create better drugs, develop techniques for early detection and diagnosis, and make it easier for patients to enroll in clinical trials, he said.

Gates plans to donate $50 million to the Dementia Discovery Fund, a venture capital fund that supports Alzheimer's research and treatment developments. The rest will go to research startups, Reuters reports.

[h/t Newsweek]

A New Analysis of Chopin's Heart Reveals the Cause of His Death

For years, experts and music lovers alike have speculated over what caused celebrated composer Frederic Chopin to die at the tragically young age of 39. Following a recent examination of his heart, Polish scientists have concluded that Chopin succumbed to tuberculosis, just as his death certificate states, according to The New York Times.

When Chopin died in 1849, his body was buried in Paris, where he had lived, while his heart was transported to his home city of Warsaw, Poland. Chopin—who appeared to have been ill with tuberculosis (TB)—was terrified of the prospect of being buried alive, and nostalgic for his national roots. He asked for his heart to be cut out, and his sister later smuggled it past foreign guards and into what is now Poland.

Preserved in alcohol—likely cognac—and stored in a crystal jar, Chopin's heart was laid to rest inside Holy Cross Church in Warsaw. (It was removed by the Germans in 1944 during the Warsaw Uprising, and later returned.) But rumors began to swirl, as the same doctor tasked with removing the heart had also conducted an autopsy on the composer's body, according to the BBC.

The physician's original notes have been lost, but it's said he concluded that Chopin had died not from TB but from "a disease not previously encountered." This triggered some scholars to theorize that Chopin had died from cystic fibrosis, or even a form of emphysema, as the sickly musician suffered from chronic respiratory issues. Another suspected condition was mitral stenosis, or a narrowing of the heart valves.

Adhering to the wishes of a living relative, the Polish church and government have refused to let scientists conduct genetic tests on Chopin's heart. But over the years, teams have periodically checked up on the organ to ensure it remains in good condition, including once in 1945.

In 2014, a group of Chopin enthusiasts—including Polish scientists, religious officials, and members of the Chopin Institute, which researches and promotes Chopin's legacy—were given the go-ahead to hold a clandestine evening meeting at Holy Cross Church. There, they removed Chopin's heart from its perch inside a stone pillar to inspect it for the first time in nearly 70 years.

Fearing the jar's alcohol would evaporate, the group added hot wax to its seal and took more than 1000 photos of its contents. Pictures of the surreptitious evening procedure weren't publicly released, but were shown to the AP, which described Chopin's preserved heart as "an enlarged white lump."

It's unclear what prompted a follow-up investigation on Chopin's heart, or who allowed it, but an early version of an article in the American Journal of Medicine states that experts—who did not open the jar—have newly observed that the famed organ is "massively enlarged and floppy," with lesions and a white, frosted appearance. These observations have prompted them to diagnose the musician's cause of death as pericarditis, which is an inflammation of tissue around the heart. This likely stemmed from his tuberculosis, they said.

Some scientists might still clamor at the prospect of testing tissue samples of Chopin's heart. But Michael Witt of the Polish Academy of Sciences—who was involved in this latest examination—told The Guardian that it was unnecessary to disturb what many consider to be a symbol of national pride.

"Some people still want to open it in order to take tissue samples to do DNA tests to support their ideas that Chopin had some kind of genetic condition," Witt said. "That would be absolutely wrong. It could destroy the heart, and in any case, I am quite sure we now know what killed Chopin."

[h/t The New York Times]


More from mental floss studios