A totally-paralyzed man was able to speak again thanks to a brain implant, a controversial study claims. It says he asked for beer and told his son he loved him.

Neural data are decoded and analyzed in real time to control the speller software

Scientists said the software pictured in this image can read the neural signals of the man with locked-in syndrome.Wyss Center, Geneva

  • A study claims to describe how a man with locked-in syndrome could speak with his family again.

  • Using a brain implant, the man was able to ask for a beer and tell his son he loves him, he said.

  • Experts are split about the study as the authors’ track record has been controversial.

Scientists say they have been able to communicate with a man with locked-in syndrome by using a brain implant, a medical first, they claim.

The findings could provide hope for patients in that state. But experts have been cautious to celebrate the study because of the author’s controversial track record.

Per the case study, the brain implant was able to read the brain waves of a 34-year-old man who is completely paralyzed and has lost even the ability to move his eyes.

The man with locked-in syndrome, who has not been named, is shown in his bed at home

The man with locked-in syndrome is shown in his bed at home. He has not been named and is referred to as K1 in the paper.Wyss Center, Geneva

He was not named in the study, from the Wyss Center for Bio and Neuroengineering and the University of Tübingen.

It was published Tuesday in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Communications.

Per the study, the man learned how to formulate sentences 107 days into his training.

On day 245, he spelled out: “wili ch tool balbum mal laut hoerenzn,” a rough spelling in German which the scientists translated to “I would like to listen to the album by Tool loud,” the study said. Tool is a rock band.

On day 247, he spelled: “und jetwzt ein beer”— “and now a beer,” per the study, which the study authors say would have to be delivered by a gastrointestinal tube

On day 251, he spelled “ich liebe meinen coolen” followed by his son’s name, which translated to “I love my cool son” per the study.

He said the man has degenerative amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, and was first diagnosed in August 2015.

He lost the ability to speak and walk by the end of 2015, per the study.

He has been in home care and machines have fed him and controlled his breathing since 2016, per the study.

He had been able to communicate with his wife and child by moving his eyes, the study said, but lost this ability in 2019.

The brain implant is shown here.

The brain implant is 0.1 inches wide and has 64 needle‐like electrodes that record neural signals.Wyss Center, Geneva

Results mired by controversial track records

This is not the first foray into this field for two of the study authors: Niel Birbaumer, a now-retired neuroscientist, and Ujwal Chaudhary, a bioengineer, per The New York Times.

The authors have previously published research claiming to be able to communicate with patients with locked-in syndrome, but both papers were ultimately retracted — a process by which peer-reviewed journals signal a mistake that makes the paper invalid.

A 2019 investigation conducted by the German Research Foundation (DFG), which funded some of the work, found “several cases of scientific misconduct” from Birbaumer and Chaudhary, including that they “only partially recorded the examinations of their patients on video.”

The DFG imposed severe sanctions against Birbaumer, banning him from applying for grants and from serving as an evaluator for five years, per Nature News.

Chaudhary and Birbaumer have stood by their research. “This is finally our redemption,” Chaudhary told STAT News.

Birbaumer has taken legal action against the DFG and the result of the lawsuit will be published in coming weeks, per the Times.

A DFG spokesperson told The Times the body expects to win the case and aims to investigate Birbaumer’s latest research as well.

Neural data recorded by the implant is shown on a computer screen as a series of waves.

Neural data recorded by the implant is shown here.Wyss Center, Geneva

Experts split on the interpretation of the data

Experts who were not involved in the study do not agree on how significant it is.

Femke Nijboer, biomedical researcher of the Dutch University of Twente, said that the finding was “important,” per STAT News.

It shows people with locked-in syndrome can manipulate their brain signals to communicate, Nijboer said per STAT News.

“It’s a game-changer,” said Steven Laureys, a neurologist at the University of Liège said, per the Times. The study could have ethical implications for euthanasia of patients in locked-in states, the Times reported.

But Brendan Allison, a University of California San Diego researcher, said the study “like other work by Birbaumer, should be taken with a massive mountain of salt given his history,” per the Times.

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