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.

97 Percent of Us Are Washing Our Hands All Wrong

Most of us know the importance of washing our hands, but we're still pretty clueless when it comes to washing them the right way. As CNN reports, we fall short of washing our hands effectively 97 percent of the time.

That number comes from a new study conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that looked at 383 participants in a test-kitchen environment. When they were told to wash their hands, the vast majority of subjects walked away from the sink after less than 20 seconds—the minimum hand-washing time recommended by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Many of them also failed to dry their hands with a clean towel.

The researchers had participants cooking and handling raw meats. Because they didn't wash their hands properly, volunteers were spreading potentially dangerous germs to spice jars 48 percent of the time, contaminating refrigerator handles 11 percent of the time, and doing the same to salads 5 percent of the time.

People who don't wash their hands the correct way risk spreading harmful microbes to everything they touch, making themselves and those they live with more susceptible to certain infections like gastrointestinal illness and respiratory infections. Luckily, the proper hand-washing protocol isn't that complicated: The biggest change most of us need to make is investing more time.

According to the CDC, you need to rub your hands with soapy water for at least 20 seconds to get rid of harmful bacteria. A helpful trick is to sing "Happy Birthday" twice as you wash—once you're finished, you should have passed the 20-second mark. And if your bathroom or kitchen doesn't have a clean towel to dry your hands with, let them air-dry. 

[h/t CNN]

This Mysterious Condition Makes People Think Bugs Are Crawling Under Their Skin

After seeing a spider or beetle scurry past you, it’s normal to get a creepy-crawly feeling, even if you know there’s nothing on you. For many people, though, the persistent sensation of phantom insects or parasites crawling underneath their skin—known as formication—is very real, Newsweek reports.

The condition is called delusional infestation, and although cases have been documented around the world, there hasn’t been enough research to determine if it’s a skin condition or psychological disorder. However, two new studies are attempting to shed light on the mysterious ailment that can cause symptoms such as itching, fatigue, joint pain, rashes or lesions, and difficulty concentrating. Some people have reported picking “fibers” out of their skin.

Researchers from the Mayo Clinic and Denmark’s Aarhus University Hospital believe tens of thousands of Americans could have this condition, making it more common than previously thought. Their study, published in the journal JAMA Dermatology, found that people with the condition are often “resistant to medical evidence [showing that there is no infestation] and reluctant to pursue psychiatric evaluation.” Some patients, convinced that they have something crawling underneath their skin, self-harm with tweezers, bleach, or razor blades.

The researchers stopped short of calling it a psychological condition, but they did conclude that schizophrenia, dementia, other psychiatric conditions, and drug use can trigger delusional infestation in some cases, Science News reports.

Another new study, published in the journal Annals of the Academy of Medicine of Singapore [PDF], also seemed to favor a psychological explanation for the condition. The researchers noted that Chinese patients with the condition were treated with antipsychotics, and 10 of the 11 patients with isolated cases of delusional infestation (who had no other underlying disorders) improved with medication.

However, other researchers have drawn different conclusions, arguing that the condition is the skin's response to “tick-borne pathogens” typically associated with Lyme disease. The condition has gone by several names over the years, including Morgellons disease—a term coined in 2004 by a medical researcher and mother who says she found “fibers” on her young son’s skin after he kept scratching at the "bugs" he claimed were there. Regardless of the origin, what's clear is that the condition has very real consequences for those who suffer from it, and more research is needed to find suitable treatments.

[h/t Newsweek]


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