For ALS Patients, Devices on the Horizon Make Communicating Easier

For ALS Patients, Devices on the Horizon Make Communicating Easier
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The late theoretical physicist Dr. Stephen Hawking is widely regarded as one of human history’s great geniuses. Thankfully for us, he managed to communicate his genius despite suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS.

ALS is a neurodegenerative brain condition that gradually weakens the patient’s motor neurons and makes it increasingly difficult to speak. Hawking typically spoke with the aid of a computer. As he typed, a computerized voice did the talking for him.

Dr. Canan Dagdeverin is a physicist, material scientist, and assistant professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In an article for Medical Device Network written by Abi Millar, Dr. Dagdeverin described meeting Hawking at a Harvard Society dinner.

Dagdeverin said, “Dr. Hawking exuded such a warm and patient presence with so much to tell and share, yet I sensed his struggles – it was taking too long for him to compose a sentence via his computer system.”

That night was a point of inspiration for Dagdeverin. She vowed to create “a conformable interface, which would allow him and those like him to compose messages seamlessly…”.

Dagdeverin made good on that vow. Since then, she and her team at M.I.T. have developed a skin-like device that can adhere to a patient’s face and detect small facial movements. Those movements can then be programmed to correspond with specific words or phrases, eliminating the need for typing. Essentially, the user of the device could create their own “dictionary” of facial movements.

Dagdeverin’s device is just one of several types of technology on the horizon, giving hope to ALS patients. From eye-tracking systems to brain implants, this article details 17 different devices that are currently in development, undergoing clinical trials, or approved to assist ALS patients with communication challenges.

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