A ground-breaking study has found a way to help locked-in syndrome patients to communicate.

Scientists at the Wyss Center for Bio and Neuroengineering in Geneva created a brain-computer interface that can tell whether a patient is saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’.

The patients have a condition called completely locked-in syndrome (CLIS). It was brought on by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a progressive neurodegenerative disease which leaves people totally paralyzed but still aware and able to think. It means that they can't communicate, not even by moving their eyes.

Three patients completed more than 46 sessions spread over several weeks, and one patient completed 20 sessions. Three females and one male between the ages of 24 and 76 took part.

They were asked a series of questions which only had a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. Their responses were measured using Functional Near-Infrared Spectroscopy (fNIRS), which measures changes in blood flow in the front part of the brain using near-infrared light.

The question “Are you happy?” resulted in a consistent “Yes” response from the four people, repeated over weeks of questioning.

In one case, a family requested that the researchers ask one of the participants whether he would agree for his daughter to marry her boyfriend ‘Mario’. The answer was “No” nine times out of 10.

fNIFRS is a new way of ‘reading’ the brain. Previous studies have attempted to read the electrical signals produced by the brain but with little success.

“The striking results overturn my own theory that people with complete locked-in syndrome are not capable of communication,” said the study lead, Professor Niels Birbaumer, a neuroscientist at the Wyss Center for Bio and Neuroengineering.

“We found that all four people we tested were able to answer the personal questions we asked them, using their thoughts alone. If we can replicate this study in more patients I believe we could restore useful communication in completely locked-in states for people with motor neuron diseases.”

Professor Birbaumer’s research is not the only example of how brain science is changing our world.

Reversing spinal injury

In 2015 scientists were able to reverse the damage caused by spinal injury using a brain training technique.

Eight paraplegics received 12 months of “brain training”, using a combination of virtual reality, a robotic walker and a brain-machine interface.

In sessions using virtual reality, participants in the study were able to imagine regaining full control of their limbs. Then, patients used a walking device, typically used in physical therapy, which allowed them to combine the movement of walking with their virtual reality imagination. In the final part of the training programme, the participants were connected via computer to a custom-designed exoskeleton.

All the participants were able to move the exoskeleton using their own brains, and showed a partial recovery from spinal injury. All eight patients regained some control of their lower limbs. This was true even for those who had been injured a decade or more earlier.

Using the power of the mind

We can already use the power of our minds to move robots. One day we could harness that power to fly a plane.

That’s according to Geoffrey Ling, Professor of Neurology and Neuroscience at both Johns Hopkins and Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, and a member of the Global Future Council on Neurotechnologies and Brain Science. He says that “innovation is going to explode” when it comes to brain science.

There are neural codes within the brain that are directly associated with action. Those codes, recorded when a person performs an action, can be downloaded to another person’s brain so that they can complete the same action – by only thinking about it.

In one experiment, a woman who is quadriplegic was able to fly an F-35 fighter jet simulator using only her mind.

The professor predicts that one day, we will “put on a skullcap like a hat and you will then get in your car, you'll think about driving and you'll just go.”

Social media telepathy

Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg has big plans for telepathy, and thinks that one day we will be able to communicate with Facebook telepathically.

“You’re going to be able to capture a thought in its ideal and perfect form in your head,” he says. “You’ll be able to share that with the world, in a format where they can get it.”

However, he agrees that such a breakthrough is probably decades away: “There’s some pretty crazy brain research going on, that suggests we might be able to do this at some point.

“One day, I believe we'll be able to send full rich thoughts to each other directly using technology. You'll just be able to think of something and your friends will immediately be able to experience it too, if you'd like. This would be the ultimate communication technology,” he said in 2015.

 Mark Zuckerberg at South by Southwest in 2008.
Image: (CC) Brian Solis, www.briansolis.com / bub.blicio.us / CC-BY

The end of bad moods?

Brain scientists and psychologists at Swansea University are developing a new technique which can reduce the impact of stress on a person's mood and help improve emotional wellbeing.

Image: Frontiers in Psychology

The scientists studied 66 healthy young women, with no history of psychiatric disorders or substance dependence. They placed electrodes on the heads of 44 of them that sent weak electrical impulses to the front of the brain for 12 minutes a day over five days. The other 22 had placebo electrodes placed on them.

Those volunteers who received the active stimulation (as opposed to a placebo) gradually reported having experienced less negative mood states in the past day. Those in the placebo group did not report notable changes in mood.