Scientists discover how to communicate with people locked in their own bodies

Sunday February 26 2017

Scientists have developed a method of brain-computer interface in which they are able to peer into the brain and ask the patients simple yes-or-no questions to those who suffer from is an advanced form of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. PHOTO | AGENCIES

Scientists have developed a method of brain-computer interface in which they are able to peer into the brain and ask the patients simple yes-or-no questions to those who suffer from is an advanced form of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. PHOTO | AGENCIES 

By GERRY LOUGHRAN
More by this Author

The horror story that scared me most as a child was the one about being apparently dead but actually paralysed and heading for burial in a deep grave or cremation in a fiery furnace while fully aware of what was happening.

The character in one such tale insisted he be placed in a tomb above ground with a bell outside which he could ring if such an eventuality confronted him.

It is a fact people can find themselves in such a catatonic state — “locked-in syndrome” it’s called — where they have absolutely no control over their bodies.

But relax. Scientists say a way has finally been found through which such people can communicate.

What they suffer from is an advanced form of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, in which the brain loses the ability to control muscles. It eventually traps people in their own bodies, incapable of moving or talking.

Often it will be possible to develop ways of communication using eye movements. But four patients at the Wyss Centre in Switzerland could not even move their eyes.

Scientists developed a method of brain-computer interface in which they were able to peer into the brain and ask the patients simple yes-or-no questions, such as, “Is your husband’s name William?” The system achieved an accuracy rate of about 75 per cent, which means questions need to be asked repeatedly to be certain of a patient’s answer.

MAKES HUGE IMPACT

Prof. Ujwal Chaudhary, one of the researchers, told the BBC, “It makes a great difference to their quality of life. Imagine if you had no means of communicating and then you could say yes or no. That makes a huge impact.”

In one case, a daughter wanted the blessing of her completely locked-in father before marrying her boyfriend. But eight out of 10 times the answer that came back was No.

“We don’t know why he said no,” commented Prof. Chaudhary, “but they got married anyway. Nothing can defeat true love.”

This form of communication is being used for more practical purposes on a day to day basis, such as finding out if a patient is in pain or wants a family visit.

***

The current issue of the satirical magazine Private Eye shows the Queen at her desk pen in hand. Behind her is a poster: “Millions Sign Petition to Stop Trump Visit.” The Queen adds her signature, saying, “One has to draw the line somewhere.”

It is not known what Her Majesty’s personal views are on President Donald Trump but, given reports of his less than delicate public behaviour, it may well be that she would indeed be happy to sign such a petition, were that not impossible for a head of state.

QUICK INVITATION

Prime Minister Theresa May invited Trump for a state visit during the first week of his presidency, an unusually quick invitation, given that Barack Obama had been in office for more than two years when he was asked over.

And the invitation caused uproar here in view of the president’s anti-immigration views, his proposed travel ban on Islam-majority countries and his comments about women.

A nationwide petition against the visit was started immediately and soon reached 1.85 million signatures. A counter-petition in support of the visit got 311,000. This means that the proposed visit will be debated in Parliament. The rule is that for a petition to be discussed by MPs, it must have at least 100,000 signatures.

Parliamentary officials announced that the debate would take place tomorrow Monday. The Stop Trump Coalition announced that it will gather for a rally outside the House while the debate is taking place. It said other demonstrations were planned around the UK, including in Edinburgh, Newcastle, Manchester, Liverpool and Cardiff.

The Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, was criticised by some MPs when he said Trump should not address Parliament during his trip in light of his many controversial comments.

Campaigners are also marking “One Day Without Us,” celebrating the contribution of migrants to Britain, and London Mayor Sadiq Khan, himself a son of migrants, said Trump’s “cruel and shameful” policies meant he should not be granted a state visit.

No dates have been mentioned for the proposed visit.

***

A man bought a new refrigerator and put the old one outside his house with a notice saying, “Free fridge, please take it.” To his surprise, the fridge was still there after three days, so he changed the sign to read, “Fridge for sale, £50.” It was stolen the next day.

***

Former Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama arrived at the Pearly Gates with President Trump. Seated in his glory, Saint Peter asked each of them what they believed in. Clinton: “I believe in a strong America.” Obama: “I believe in fair shares for all.” Trump: “I believe you’re sitting in my chair.”