A pair of brain microchips could one day allow those in ‘pseudocomas‘ to communicate whatever they want, a new breakthrough suggests.
In a first, a 34-year-old patient who lacked even the most subtle of muscle twitches has used the technology to share a few precious words with his family, using little more than an intent to move his eyes.
Similar devices have previously given patients with the fast-progressing condition amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) the means to send simple messages with extremely limited movements, but researchers say the severity of the man’s condition here represents a significant advancement for the technology.
“To our knowledge, ours is the first study to achieve communication by someone who has no remaining voluntary movement and hence for whom the BCI is now the sole means of communication,” says neuroscientist Jonas Zimmermann from the Wyss Center in Switzerland.
A pseudocoma is also known as ‘locked-in’ syndrome, because while these patients cannot walk or talk, they are still very much conscious, capable of seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, thinking, and feeling.
Without the ability to move the mouth or the tongue, however, communication is severely limited. If the eyes can still move, patients can sometimes blink or ‘point’ with their pupils to make themselves understood, but in some advanced cases, even that basic form of communication is out of reach.
The man in this case was one such patient. Within months of diagnosis with the condition, he had already lost the ability to walk and talk. A year later, the patient was placed on a ventilator to help him breathe. A year after that, he lost the ability to fix his gaze.
The extreme isolation ultimately led the patient and his family to agree to a cutting-edge experiment.
Before the patient lost the ability to move his eyes, he consented to a surgical procedure that would implant two microchips into the part of his brain that controls muscle movement.
Each chip was equipped with 64 needle-like electrodes, which could pick up on his conscious attempts to move. That brain activity was then sent to a computer, which translated the impulses into a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ signal.
In the past, similar brain implants have allowed some patients with ALS to communicate via a computer typing program. But this is the first time an ALS patient without the ability to so much as use their eyes has been able to do something similar.
“People have really doubted whether this was even feasible,” Mariska Vansteensel, a brain-computer interface researcher who was not involved in the study, told Science.
Above: The experimental setup of the brain implants, plus the biofeedback device and the spelling program.
The technique took months of training, but once the patient learned how to control the firing rates of his brain signals, he was able to respond to a spelling program and select specific letters, spoken out loud by the program, to form words and even sentences.
Each letter the patient heard took about a minute for the patient to respond to, making for slow progress, but nonetheless, for the first time in a long time, the device allowed this man to express himself.
The accuracy of the technology is still not perfect. The patient could only signal ‘yes’ or ‘no’ about 80 percent of the time, with about 80 percent accuracy. Some days he could only generate words, not sentences.
“These apparent poor performances are primarily due to the completely auditory nature of these systems, which are intrinsically slower than a system based on visual feedback,” the authors write in their study.
The first phrase the ALS patient successfully spelled out was a ‘thank you’ to the lead neurobiologist on his case, Niels Birbaumer.
Then, came a slew of requests for his care, like “Mom head massage” and “I would like to listen to the album by Tool [a band] loud”.
Then, 247 days after the surgical procedure, the patient gave his verdict on the device: “Boys, it works so effortlessly”.
On day 251 he sent a message to his kid: “I love my cool son”. He then asked his child to watch a Disney film with him.
On day 462, the patient expressed that his “biggest wish is a new bed”, and that the next day he could go with his loved ones to a barbecue.
“If someone is forming sentences like this, I would say it is positive. Even if it is not positive, it is not negative,” first author of the study Ujwal Chaudhary told The Guardian.
“One time when I was there, he said, ‘Thank you for everything, sister’ [to his sister, who helps care for him]. It was an emotional moment.”
The ability for someone in a pseudocoma to communicate obviously comes with a whole slew of ethical considerations.
After all, who condones the initial insertion? And once a person has learned to communicate again, can they speak for themselves and the future of their care? How accurate do these systems need to be before we can adequately interpret what patients are telling us?
We don’t have rules or outlines for this type of technology quite yet, but if the device turns out to be useful for other patients, we will need to start confronting these quandaries.
Giving advanced ALS patients their voices back could be a huge medical breakthrough and a great relief for individuals and their families. How we respond to those voices is up to us.
The study was published in Nature Communications.
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The COVID emergency might end after 3 long years — but the virus is still a threat
It’s now been more than three years since SARS-CoV-2 began its march around the world, first as a virus totally foreign to humans, and later as an evolving pathogen capable of sneaking past our sharpened immune systems, infecting even those who’ve built up immunity from prior infections or vaccinations.
On Friday, a World Health Organization (WHO) committee is set to meet to consider whether the COVID-19 pandemic still represents a global public health emergency.
Multiple experts who spoke to CBC News said that regardless of what WHO decides in the days ahead, COVID-19 will remain a threat to our collective health for years to come — for a slate of different reasons — even as governments and the public move on.
“I know this is what happens at the end of pandemics,” Toronto-based microbiologist Dr. Allison McGeer said, “but watching it in real time is a bit depressing.”
There are reasons to be hopeful about the trajectory of the COVID-19 pandemic, even though this virus has claimed millions of lives.
By now, a majority of Canadians are vaccinated, which largely protects against serious illness. Drugs like Paxlovid are available for higher-risk groups, and critical care physicians have learned how to better treat those who do fall seriously ill.
As of mid-2022, vaccinated and boosted Canadians were three times less likely to be hospitalized — and five times less likely to die — than people who hadn’t gotten a single shot, federal figures show.
Data from a B.C. research team also suggests SARS-CoV-2 has infected most of the population at least once, offering many people a blend of protective immunity through both viral exposure and vaccines. But most doesn’t mean everyone, McGeer stressed.
COVID-19 still killed hundreds of Canadians each week throughout much of the last year, and even now, the virus keeps finding new victims with grim regularity, she said, including isolated seniors and other high-risk individuals who managed to avoid the virus while taking precautions.
“We have too many older people who are as yet uninfected for it to plateau,” said McGeer. Read more on this story here.
(Stephane de Sakutin/AFP/Getty Images)
A model presents a creation for Viktor & Rolf during the haute couture spring-summer 2023 Fashion Week in Paris on Wednesday.
Canada is considering contributing four Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine, senior sources told CBC News — but no decision has been made. The government could announce the donation of tanks as early as Thursday, the sources said. CBC News is not identifying the confidential sources because they were not authorized to speak publicly. One source said Canada is likely to send Ukraine the A4 variant of the tank — the oldest in the Canadian military’s inventory. Canada bought the A4s from the Netherlands during the Afghan war. The Globe and Mail first reported the number of tanks that Canada may send to Ukraine’s war effort. Read more here.
Alberta Premier Danielle Smith should call an independent investigation into contact between her office, the justice minister’s office and Crown prosecutors to put questions to rest, one political scientist says. Sources have told CBC News that Smith, over several months, asked for updates on cases or inquired whether it would be possible to abandon them. University of Calgary political science Prof. Lisa Young says questions about the actions of Smith and her staff may follow them until an impartial third party can look at the evidence. “There’s a lot of smoke around this, which suggests there is a fire,” Young said Wednesday. “And it’s very clear that there’s now a perception that something has gone on here. Which means, we need clarity.” Read the full story here.
As the union representing tens of thousands of federal public servants prepares to hold strike votes across the country, one expert in labour negotiations says we should be prepared for more contract disputes thanks to high inflation. Earlier this week, the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) announced it will hold strike votes for another 120,000 federal public servants, just two weeks after taking the same step for 35,000 taxation employees. The main issue during talks, which started in June 2021, appears to be wage increases, with PSAC asking for an annual increase of 4.5 per cent for 2021, 2022 and 2023. The government has countered by offering a 2.06 per cent raise on average over four years, an amount PSAC labelled as “insulting.” The negotiations have stalled, which doesn’t surprise Robert Hickey, an associate professor of industrial relations at Queen’s University. “The bargaining environment has been fundamentally changed by inflation,” said Hickey. “What PSAC is asking seems high, but in the context of relatively high inflation it’s not outside the ballpark for a starting offer.” Read more on this story here.
Nearly a year after discovering something was wrong with their property, Stephanie and Derrick are sharing their story to sound the alarm on how they say current identification requirements in real-estate transactions are failing to protect homeowners from fraud. CBC Toronto is not using the couple’s real names because they are the victims of identity theft. “All the things you need to provide to buy a house, no one ever checks if those match up when you sell a house,” alleges Derrick. “You trust these institutions to protect you and it feels like they’re doing whatever they can to do things as fast and as cheap as possible.” The couple says the fraudsters who impersonated them to sell their house consistently spelled one of their last names wrong through the transaction, which was inconsistent with the fake ID they were using. Read the full story here.
If you are one of those Canadians who remain confident that central bank governor Tiff Macklem has a good handle on the economy, the future looks pretty bright. “It’s working,” Macklem boasted at Wednesday’s monetary policy news conference. Yes, another quarter-point rate hike means Canadians paying off their mortgages will now be forking out 4.25 percentage points more than they expected just two years ago. And yes, interest costs on those lines of credit so many Canadians still carry will rise above seven per cent instead of the two per cent when the bank lent them the money. But according to Wednesday’s monetary policy report, not only does the Bank of Canada seem to think it may have inflation pretty well licked, Macklem said he expects the Canadian economy will pay a relatively mild price over the next six to nine months compared to some of the most worrying predictions. Not everyone shares his optimism, and even Macklem admits it won’t be painless. Read more here.
Day 69:03AI-generated essays are a growing concern, so this Canadian student created a free app to detect them
Edward Tian, 22, of Toronto created GPTZero in response to the wildly successful artificial intelligence content-generating app ChatGPT, to give people a way to ascertain whether writing samples were produced by humans or bots. ChatGPT came out in November, and was released by San Francisco-based OpenAl. Users can ask it questions and assign it to produce things such as essays, poetry or computer code. It then scrapes text from across the internet to formulate a response. When it surfaced, educational institutions were concerned about it being used for cheating. Tian’s program, GPTZero, which was released in early January, is free and was designed to red flag AI-generated writing. “I think writing can be so beautiful,” said the computer science and journalism student. “There are parts and qualities of human writing that the machines can never do.” Read Tian’s conversation with Day 6 host Brent Bambury.
Now for some good news to start your Thursday: It took 50 years, and it was worth every minute for Vic Mercredi to see his face on an NHL rookie card. Mercredi is one of eight Indigenous NHLers to be featured in the First Peoples Rookie Card series, from trading card company Upper Deck. He still plays hockey casually with his kids and grandkids, but it’s been five full decades since he was drafted by the Atlanta Flames. The picture on his card features a young Mercredi — a photo taken back during his first day of training camp for the purpose of cards and programs. “Fifty years later? Better late than never,” Mercredi said with a chuckle. “It is quite an honour to have something like that at this point in my life.” Read more on this story here.
Nothing is Foreign: ‘No future here,’ says man who fled Russia after getting draft notice
As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine drags on, experts say Vladimir Putin is preparing to do what was once unthinkable: launch another wave of mobilization.
Russian military analysts say Putin is preparing the country for a long war and needs the extra recruits. In addition, Ukrainian intelligence officials have also claimed that a second round of mobilization is imminent.
But what do ordinary Russians think? This week, Nothing is Foreign speaks to a Russian man who fled when he first received his draft notice. He says that if the war effort persists, he does not see a future for himself and his family in Russia.
Nothing is Foreign28:54‘No future here,’ says man who fled Russia after getting draft notice
Today in history: January 26
1891: Famed Montreal brain surgeon Dr. Wilder Penfield is born in Spokane, Wash. He accurately mapped the cortical areas related to speech for the first time. He also discovered that stimulation of the temporal lobes provoked startlingly vivid recollections — proof of the physical basis of memory.
1905: The world’s largest uncut diamond is found in South Africa. The 3,100-carat Cullinan diamond weighed more than 600 grams.
1950: India becomes a sovereign democratic republic — the first within the Commonwealth.
2006: Hudson’s Bay, Canada’s oldest company, accepts a friendly $1.5-billion takeover offer from U.S.-based Maple Leaf Heritage Investments, headed by Jerry Zucker.
Northumberland Hills Hospital declares COVID-19 outbreak – 93.3 myFM
Northumberland Hills Hospital has declared an outbreak in COVID-19 cases.
The hospital is experiencing its first surge in COVID-19 cases since October 2022.
They’ve temporarily paused visiting to NHH’s Inpatient Rehabilitation Unit due to four active COVID-19 cases among admitted inpatients.
Visiting continues as usual outside the unit unless patients are in isolation for COVID-19 infection or exposure.
Written by Lee McConnell
Top doctor says Ontario 'must remain vigilant' past flu peak, COVID variant advances – TimminsToday
TORONTO — Ontario’s top doctor says even though COVID-19 and flu activity is declining, the province “must remain vigilant” as a more transmissible variant gains ground.
In a statement, Dr. Kieran Moore says parts of Ontario are reporting a rise in the number of cases of the more easily spreadable XBB 1.5 variant of COVID-19.
He says while the new strain has not been associated with more severe illness, infections could climb as it becomes the “main variant in Ontario.”
Moore says Ontario is seeing a decline in COVID, respiratory syncytial virus and flu activity throughout the province, offering some relief to hard-hit hospitals.
In recent weeks, Ontario pediatric hospitals have ramped up surgeries after a three-month surge of flu and RSV cases pushed them to redeploy staff to intensive care units and emergency departments.
Moore says flu cases peaked at the end of November and continue to decline.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 26, 2023.
The Canadian Press
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