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Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Neural Implant Enables Paralyzed ALS Patient to Type Six Words per Minute

By Eliza Strickland
Posted

Photo: Stanford University/Nature Medicine
A paralyzed ALS patient uses a brain implant to steer a computer cursor to various targets.

Typing six words per minute may not sound very impressive. But for paralyzed people typing via a brain-computer interface (BCI), it’s a new world record.
To pull off this feat, two paralyzed people used prosthetics implanted in their brains to control computer cursors with unprecedented accuracy and speed. The experiment, reported today in Nature Medicine, was the latest from a team testing a neural system called BrainGate2. While this implant is only approved for experiments right now, researchers say this demonstration proves that such technology can be truly useful to quadriplegics, and points the way toward regular at-home use.
The two people who volunteered for this study have amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, a degenerative neural disorder that leads to complete paralysis. Lead researcher Jaimie Henderson, co-director of Stanford’s Neural Prosthetics Translational Lab, calls it a “humbling experience” to work with quadriplegic patients who willingly undergo brain surgery and devote themselves to science experiments that will push forward this early-stage technology. “They’ve become true partners with us in this endeavor,” Henderson says.
The BrainGate2 system consists of an array of minuscule electrodes implanted, in this case, in a region of the motor cortex known as the “hand knob.” The electrodes record the patterns of electrical activity in the neurons there, which fire when the person either moves or imagines moving their hand. The BrainGate2 system also includes decoding software, which turns a messy signal into a clear command for an external device—in this case, a computer cursor. Other experiments have used BCIs to control robotic arms, and they could theoretically be used to control wheelchairs, cars, or anything else that can be moved by remote control.
In this study’s first task, the participants repeatedly moved their cursors to targets on a computer screen (see video below), which they accomplished by imagining their index fingers moving on computer trackpads. They each averaged about 2.5 seconds per target. This is a significant improvement over a previous BrainGate2 trial, in which a different patient performed the same task but averaged 8.5 seconds per target.

The improvement, Henderson says, came from four factors.
1) The system architecture provided faster processing than before. With a lag time of only about 20 milliseconds between the user’s thought and the cursor’s action, the participants got useful feedback while doing the task.
2) Signal processing filters carefully extracted the neural signals from the ambient electromagnetic noise—a necessity, as these experiments were conducted in the volunteers’ homes.
3) The imagined motion that the participants ultimately used to control the cursor (an index finger moving on a trackpad) provided a clearer neural signal than other imagined motions they tried out (whole arm and wrist movements).
​4) Perhaps most importantly, an improved decoding algorithm was better able to translate neural signals into intended movements. Essentially, it was better able to identify the direction the user intended to steer the cursor, and could therefore correct for deviations in the neural signal that would have otherwise steered the cursor off track.
But what about the typing, you ask? For that task, the participants used the same imagined finger movement to pick out letters in a text-entering program called Dasher. With this interface, once the user selects a letter, the program predicts which letters are likely to come next and makes them easier to select, speeding up the construction of words.

One of the participants typed 115 words in 19 minutes, or about 6 words per minute. That user had previous experience with the Dasher interface using a different control method, but it’s still a pretty impressive result. While this participant is still able to talk naturally, such a communication method could benefit people who have lost the ability to control their mouth muscles, such as people with more advanced ALS or “locked-in” patients.
Henderson and his colleagues have previously surveyed people with paralysis to see whether they’d be eager to adopt BCI technologies in their everyday lives, and what capabilities they’d hope to gain from such gear. High on the wish-list was the ability to communicate easily through fast typing, which the survey defined as 40 words per minute.
Henderson says he has plenty of ideas for how to reach that ambitious target. A future study might make use of electrodes implanted in a region of the brain that encodes a person’s intentions to move, before they actually make a motion. “We want to see if using those signals from the planning part of the brain helps improve performance,” he says.
It’s not clear what level of performance will be required before an implanted BCI device is considered ready for domestic use. But Henderson thinks the BrainGate2 system is well on the way: “We think we’re making very good progress,” he says.   

Monday, September 28, 2015

With the Movement of an Eyebrow, Als Patient O’brien Has Won Awards

For some 10 years, using just his eyebrows, Leonard Florence Center For Living (LFCFL) resident Patrick O’Brien – who has ALS and cannot move anything but his eyebrows – worked away at creating what he hoped would be his greatest masterpiece on film.
A filmmaker before getting ALS, he was inclined to document the entire process of the disease’s progression, and did so quite well.
As the disease progressed, though, it became harder for him to work on the film. Several editors had helped him with the project, but nothing seemed to take the nearly-finished film from good to great.



Then, by coincidence, Documentarian Doug Pray entered the picture, and he and O’Brien formed a team that finally got the film out to the world.
And the world has loved it.
With O’Brien and Pray working together, ‘Transfatty Lives’ was born, and now the film is garnering awards from New York City to Milan. Earlier this year, O’Brien’s film won the Tribeca Film Festival in its category, and just this past Sunday it won the Audience Award at the Milano Film Festival in Italy.
“What a long, strange trip it’s been,” said O’Brien this week over e-mail. “The movie almost didn’t get finished. It was by luck that our composer, Bradford Reed, bumped into filmmaker Doug Pray one night at a party. Doug watched a rough cut of the movie and wrote a six-page letter to me about how to fix my movie, then titled ‘Everything will be okay.’”
His letter came just in time, O’Brien said.
“I had been trying to make the movie work for eight years at that point, and the film needed some fresh eyes,” said O’Brien. “I had been working with a writer and editor named Scott Crowningshield at that stage. It was good, the film, but not great. It had to be great. I had been documenting my life with ALS since the beginning, and it was going to be great. It just needed the right touch. Thank God for Doug Pray, who agreed to come on as a producer. It was good that Doug came onto the scene at that point in time, because by then I had experimented so much with my cokamayme ideas.”
Pray said in a telephone interview this week that he is incredibly honored to have worked with O’Brien.
“By the time I met Patrick, he had grown very frustrated and realized this had to be the last big push for his movie,” said Pray. “You can only keep reforming and editing movies for so long. I think we all felt that energy…The film did need help. It was beautiful, but needed help. It was like a wonderful painting that needs a frame. It was so powerful, funny, weird and artsy. No one was going to see if we didn’t make the push and take this on, and the potential for the film was enormous.”
Pray said O’Brien had gathered all of the footage – years of footage – and had compiled it for quite some time. The trick was to edit all of the raw footage into a great accounting of what O’Brien went through in his ALS journey – a journey that included lying motionless for several years in a Baltimore nursing home, only able to stare at the ceiling.
Once arriving at the LFCFL, the technology and enormous improvement in his quality of life at the facility’s ALS Green House, allowed him to continue his work and to be a key decision maker and director in the editing of his film.
Once again, O’Brien did that without the use of any of his body aside from the movement his eyebrows.
“As filmmakers, we are fussy with our own work, and I can’t imagine what it must have been like for Patrick to be locked in a bed in Boston, not able to move, while these other people all over the place are working on his film,” said Pray. “However, the degree to which he was able to give input and guide us and direct us about where he wanted the film to go is simply remarkable and amazing especially when you consider his situation. I’ll never forget this experience.”
Pray also said O’Brien’s story about winning Tribeca and Milan – and being able to travel to the Tribeca Festival for his premiere – is a feather in the cap for the LFCFL.
“It says a lot about the Leonard Florence that they allow people to be themselves and let people live lives that are meaningful – even when they’re paralyzed,” he said. “They supported this whole thing, even getting Patrick down to New York, which wasn’t easy. He couldn’t have done this without the technology available and support of that facility. He couldn’t have done this at a regular nursing home facility. That says a lot about Leonard Florence. It’s not normal; it’s special.”
The film is not yet available for public viewing due to the fact that it is still in the Film Festival circuit. It will be premiered in Los Angeles later this year, and will have a Boston premiere some time next year, O’Brien said. However, he said people can visit TransFattyLives.com for more information and to view a trailer.
The LFCL features neurological specialty residences with cutting-edge assistive technology, allowing individuals with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease) and MS (multiple sclerosis) to receive skilled nursing care in a nurturing home environment. The 7th annual ALS & MS Walk for Living, a fundraiser to support these individuals as well as the innovative residences, will be held on Sunday, September 27, a
Filmmaker Patrick O’Brien - who has ALS and can only move one eyebrow - with Chelsea Jewish Foundation CEO Barry Berman last week at O’Brien’s home in the Leonard Florence Center for Living. This year’s ALS Walk for Living on Sunday will pay homage to several awards recently won by O’Brien for his film ‘TransFattyLives.'
Filmmaker Patrick O’Brien – who has ALS and can only move one eyebrow – with Chelsea Jewish Foundation CEO Barry Berman last week at O’Brien’s home in the Leonard Florence Center for Living. This year’s ALS Walk for Living on Sunday will pay homage to several awards recently won by O’Brien for his film ‘TransFattyLives.’
t 165 Captains Row on Admirals Hill at 10 a.m.
 
This year Billy Costa of KISS 108 will act as emcee and kick-off the two-mile walk.  Media sponsors include the Independent Newspaper Group; major corporate sponsors include Biogen, M&T Bank, AHOA, Kayem and Clifton Larson. Immediately following the walk, there will be a BBQ hosted by Chili’s, doughnuts provided by Dunkin Donuts, face painting, live dance performances, a petting zoo, a photo booth and a raffle. There is a $10 donation fee to participate in the Walk, which includes a Walk for Living tee shirt, the BBQ and all the activities. The Walk for Living is one of the few walks that are dog-friendly.