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Health Team

Duke technology offers communication hope for ALS patients

Posted November 5, 2013
Updated November 6, 2013

— Imagine being able to put on a hat that reads your brain’s electrical activity and helps you surf the Internet.

While such technology would be a luxury for most, it could become a necessity for those suffering from diseases that cause the loss of voluntary muscle action.

Duke University engineers have developed an early version of such a system.

Bob Anderson, a 60-year-old who suffers from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, often called Lou Gehrig’s disease, is helping the Duke engineers test and improve a device that he may really need one day.

“Brain computer interface is exciting to me since ALS will take away my muscles and I [won’t] be able to type anymore,” Anderson said.

Anderson has already lost his ability to speak, but he still can type. Others, with more developed ALS, can’t even type. They must use computer systems that track their head movement, or the pupils of their eyes, to communicate.

Bob Anderson Duke engineers reveal new technology

These computer systems are ALS patients’ last options for communicating with the world, unless a something like brain technology interface can be perfected.

“So, you can actually spell things, move a cursor and surf the Internet without moving any part of your body,” Dr. Richard Bedlack, a Duke neurologist, said. “Just with the electricity in your brain.”

The cap has metal electrodes that come in contact with the scalp. When the patient simply stares at a computer screen, the letter he chooses randomly lights up. The brain reacts, causing a spike on another computer.

“By counting these spikes, the software can match it to the letter that the person’s looking at,” explains Kevin Caves, a Duke rehabilitative engineer.

The challenge is to make the system identify the spike faster, Caves added.

While this new system is just a research tool for now, it could be commercially available in several years.

Duke engineers and researchers said they believe that the system could also be beneficial for stroke patients, people with cerebral palsy and even severe autism.

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  • JessGH Nov 6, 10:36 a.m.

    I would like to request a correction: the Duke rehabilitative engineer's name is actually Kevin Caves.