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Health Beat: Giving Jan a voice: Thinking cap for ALS

By Melanie Falcon, Anchor / Reporter, @Melanie_Falcon, MFalcon@wfmz.com
Published On: Apr 10 2014 09:00:00 AM CDT
DURHAM, N.C. -

Letters flash across the screen. Using only her mind, Jan Freeman will focus on them to form a message.

For Freeman, it's a new way to communicate. Like others diagnosed with ALS, she lost her ability to speak and will eventually lose her ability to move, even as her mind remains active. For now, she uses her phone to talk.

"I am excited about the research being done here at Duke," Freeman said.

Dr. Richard Bedlack, director of the Duke ALS Clinic and section chief of Durham VAMC Neurology, said the new brain computer interface (BCI) is a way to give ALS patients the ability to connect with those around them.

"I always get the goose bumps when we find something new here that can give people back what this disease has taken away from them," Bedlack said.

The BCI uses a "thinking cap" with electrodes. When Freeman concentrates on a letter she wants, an electrical spike tells the system what it is.

"[In the future], a person may eventually be able to spell, surf the Internet, or play games with their family with no movement left whatsoever," Bedlack said.

The new system is being used for research now, but could be commercially available in several years. It could also one day be used by those locked-in by strokes or cerebral palsy.

For now, Freeman remains grateful.

"I truly know that each day is gift and I am thankful to have this time with my family and grandchildren," she said.

DOWNLOAD and VIEW research summary and an in-depth interview with the doctor