New brain tool to assist people with paralysis communicate

LONDON: A tiny brain device that helps people with severe paralysis to communicate has been proven safe and effective in a world first trial in Melbourne.

The device, the size of a tiny paperclip, is inserted into a blood vessel near the brain, where it imprints itself, like a tattoo, and intercept signals from patients, allowing them to operate computers or phones by using thoughts.

A team from Royal Melbourne Hospital and the University of Melbourne created the device, called a Stentrode, and have just completed a three-year clinical trial to show it can be safely used in humans to translate thoughts into actions.

The research, published this month in the journal JAMA Neurology, was led by Peter Mitchell, director of the neuro-intervention service at the RMH, and Bruce Campbell, the hospital’s director of neurology.

Their colleague, Tom Oxley, began exploring the idea of the Stentrode device as a University of Melbourne PhD student in 2011.

With another colleague, Nicholas Opie, the pair have since founded a company to help commercialise the product.

Professor Mitchell said the device was implanted into four Victorians with advanced motor neurone disease (MND), a condition that progressively damages the nervous system and eventually robs sufferers of the ability to move.

“I can’t thank the volunteers enough,” Professor Mitchell said. “There is an awful lot that had to happen for this to work.

“They went in with their eyes wide open and they were participating to help future generations. They recognised it was unlikely to help them because it was a safety study, they didn’t know if it was going to give them any personal benefit.

“But it has. It has worked, and to me they are the heroes.”

A big challenge, he said, was developing a technique to navigate the device through the neck to the top of the head.

“The tricky part was developing a flexible device that could be moved safely through channels to the top of the head carrying an electrode that could then open up and hold in position,” he said.

Professor Mitchell said the trial showed the patients could generate electrical signals that were sent to a computer to do hands-free texting, emailing, online banking and shopping, and communicating care needs, using their thoughts.

He said patients who will use the Stentrode will be those with MND, but potentially also patients after stroke that affects the brain stem and causes a “locked-in” syndrome where the top of the brain is normal but there is an interruption between the brain and the body.

“Patients can move their eyes, but they can do little else,” Professor Mitchell said.

“These patients may also potentially benefit, as would those with high quadriplegia.”

Professor Mitchell said seed funding for the project came from the Natio

“This project is something Victoria can be very proud of,” Professor Mitchell said.

“The next step is a larger Australian study at the RMH, but also partnering at hospitals in Sydney and Brisbane in parallel with a safety study in the US.”

Professor Mitchell said the DARPA team want to see if it could help people restore mobility by controlling their wheelchairs with their minds.

“The future is limited only by our imagination,” he said. “If you have an ability to … allow people’s thoughts to generate an electrical signal they can control, then anything you can imagine that can be controlled by a computer is possible.”