Portable Mindreader Gives A Voice To Those With Locked-In Syndrome

Imagine the horror of lying in a hospital bed, hearing a doctor tell your family that you are in a vegetative state and are not aware of anything going on around you. You can hear them discussing you, and inside your head you are screaming, "No, I'm here!" but you can't move or speak. It would take a mindreader to be able to communicate with them.

Fortunately, scientists have developed just that – a portable mindreader that can help sufferers of locked-in syndrome communicate with doctors and loved ones.

The Daily Mail reports that, up until now, doctors were only able to tell the difference between locked-in syndrome and vegetative states with a large fMRI scanner, but thanks to the new technology of the portable mindreaders, they can now use an electrode cap in conjunction with vibrating pads to measure a patient's brain signals.

According to New Scientist, classic locked-in sufferers are fully conscious but are paralyzed except for eye movements. However, Adrian Owen of Canada's Western University believes there is another, more serious form of the syndrome in which patients are totally paralyzed, including eye movements. He calls this "complete locked-in syndrome," and fears that some of the people diagnosed as being in vegetative states -- in which a patient is thought to have no brain activity at all -- may actually suffer from this condition.

The Inquisitr featured a recent example of such a misdiagnosis -- a man who awoke from a 12-year coma and said that he was fully aware of everything going on around him, including his mother telling him that she hoped he died.

Now Owen and other scientists are developing portable mindreaders to allow doctors to diagnose the condition, as well as to allow locked-in sufferers to communicate with their medical teams and loved ones.

Previous mindreader studies with the fMRI scanner have shown that some patients with locked-in syndrome could understand and follow instructions -- even communicate simple yes and no answers with different patterns of brain activity.

Portable mind reader allows locked-in patients to communicate
Portable mindreader allows locked-in patients to communicate

However, the size and cost of the scanners was prohibitive for most medical facilities. To make mindreading technology more accessible to medical personnel and patients, Owen and others have developed a portable mindreader which utilizes an electrode cap that records the brain's electrical signals.

In the first tests, the team asked patients to imagine they were squeezing their hands, but only three out of 16 test subjects could generate measurable brain activity in response to the commands. Owen felt this was not an adequate test to determine the difference between locked-in syndrome and a vegetative state, as one out of four healthy people couldn't "imagine" squeezing a hand either.

He developed a new method in which the researchers began using vibrating pads placed on patients arms and asking them to concentrate on the vibrating sensations.

'Tactile stimulation works very well." Professor Owen said. "We have had some successes."

Owen and the other scientists are hoping that the new mindreaders will enable doctors to lower the number of patients who are mistakenly diagnosed as vegetative. The scanners are also small enough to be taken into homes, and may soon give caregivers and families a way to communicate with locked-in patients.

[Images via The Future of Health Now and Colorado Newsday]