Brain Implant Allows Fully Paralyzed Patient to Communicate

In 2020 Ujwal Chaudhary, a biomedical engineer then at the University of Tübingen and the Wyss Center for Bio and Neuroengineering in Geneva, watched his computer with amazement as an experiment that he had spent years on revealed itself. A 34-year-old paralyzed man lay on his back in the laboratory, his head connected by a cable to a computer. A synthetic voice pronounced letters in German: “E, A, D…”

The patient had been diagnosed a few years earlier with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, which leads to the progressive degeneration of brain cells involved in motion. The man had lost the ability to move even his eyeballs and was entirely unable to communicate; in medical terms, he was in a completely locked-in state.

Or so it seemed. Through Dr. Chaudhary’s experiment, the man had learned to select — not directly with his eyes but by imagining his eyes moving — individual letters from the steady stream that the computer spoke aloud. Letter by painstaking letter, one every minute or so, he formulated words and sentences.

“Wegen essen da wird ich erst mal des curry mit kartoffeln haben und dann bologna und dann gefuellte und dann kartoffeln suppe,” he wrote at one point: “For food I want to have curry with potato then Bolognese and potato soup.”