As a biomedical engineer working at the Universities of Tübingen and Geneva’s Wyss Center for Bio and Neuroengineering in 2020, Ujwal Chaudhary stared with surprise as an experiment he had worked on for years came to light on his computer screen, he realised he had done something really amazing. He was lying on his back in the laboratory, his head linked to a computer by a wire. He was 34 years old and paralysed from the waist down. “E, A, D…”, said a synthetic voice, pronouncing the letters in German.
Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) was discovered in the patient a few years ago, and it is characterised by the gradual degradation of brain cells involved in movement. According to medical terminology, the guy had lost the capacity to move even his eyes and was unable to speak at all; he was in a condition known as a “totally locked-in state.”
At least, that’s how it seemed. The guy had learnt to choose particular letters from the constant stream of characters that the computer said out as a result of Dr. Chaudhary’s experiment, not directly with his eyes but rather by visualising his eyes moving while he did so. He crafted words and phrases one by one, one per minute or so, letter by letter, minute by minute.
Dr. Chaudhary and his colleagues were taken aback by what they saw. In his own words, Dr. Chaudhary, who is now managing director of ALS Voice gGmbH, a neurobiotechnology business located in Germany and who has no longer worked with the patient, said, “I just did not believe that this was feasible.”
He stood by his results and has filed a lawsuit against the German Research Foundation for his actions. It is likely that the findings of the case will be disclosed within the next two weeks, according to Marco Finetti, a spokesperson for the German Research Foundation. Dr. Chaudhary and his attorneys believe they will prevail in the lawsuit.
Mr. Finetti said that the German Research Foundation was unaware of the release of the present report and that the foundation will examine the matter in the coming months. The study’s peer review procedure was described in detail in an email from a representative at Nature Communications who requested not to be identified since the information was confidential. However, the person expressed trust in the process. It was said that “we have strict rules in place to guarantee the integrity of the research we publish, including ensuring that research is performed in accordance with high ethical standards and that it is reported honestly.”
The findings may offer hope for individuals in comparable unresponsive states, such as minimally aware and comatose states, as well as for the growing number of persons diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS) throughout the globe each year. By 2040, it is expected to have increased to 300,000 people.
There have been a plethora of approaches explored to interact with patients who are nonresponsive. Some include simple pen-and-paper procedures developed by family members, while others are more complex. In others, a caregiver points to or says the names of things while watching for microresponses from the patient, such as blinks or finger twitches.
In recent years, a new way has risen to prominence: brain-computer interface technologies, which attempt to convert the signals generated by a person’s brain into computer instructions. Researchers, commercial corporations, and billionaires with entrepreneurial aspirations like as Elon Musk have all made significant investments in the technology.
It has shown uneven results, but they are compelling: people controlling prosthetic limbs with just their thoughts, and patients suffering from strokes, multiple sclerosis, and other diseases connecting with loved ones for the first time.
The exact reason of this drop is unknown, although Dr. Zimmermann believes it was most likely caused by technological difficulties. For example, the electrodes are reaching the end of their expected service life. Replacing them at this time, on the other hand, would be a mistake. “It’s a potentially dangerous surgery,” he said. “All of a sudden, you’re being exposed to different types of germs in the hospital,” says the researcher.
Dr. Zimmermann and his colleagues at the Wyss Center are working on making wireless microelectrodes that are more safe to use than current models. The team is also looking at other noninvasive procedures that have been shown to be effective in past research on patients who are not locked in. While Dr. Zimmermann believes that false hope is very hazardous, he believes that it is necessary to support individuals who are in need.
Dr. Laureys of the Coma Science Group, on the other hand, said that it would be counterproductive to instil a feeling of “false dread” when genuine advancements were on the horizon.
“I’m overjoyed in my role as a caretaker and as a physician,” he said. “I believe it is amazing that we are able to provide these new scientific insights and technologies to people who are facing quite sensitive and tragic circumstances.”