Medical Technology

Paralyzed Patients can Communicate with Fmri Technology



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People marvel each days at the wonders of technology.  As each days passes, new advancements are being made that either help to cure diseases that were thought to be unstoppable, or help to improve the quality of life for those affected.  One of the toughest things for a person to handle is the realization that they are paralyzed for life.  In most cases, accidents are the culprit, leaving a person unable to function for themselves and needing assistance for the rest of their days.  For some of the afflicted, they have even lost the ability to speak.

Technology though, is trying to give these folks a chance to be able to communicate with others.  In specific, a new brain scanner is helping paralyzed people to reach out and touch someone.  The new brain scanning technique uses something called functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, to help patients to communicate.

One might ask how a person in a paralyzed or vegatative state can communicate?  Well, the fMRI allows patients to use blood flow in their brains to create words via a set of twenty seven characters.  That includes the alphabet, along with a space to put between words.  This fMRI system basically gives the paralyzed patient a virtual keyboard in their head, allowing them to do what most thought to be impossible.  It should also do wonders for the psyche of the patient, knowing they do not have to feel like they are trapped in a body without being able to tell someone what or how they are feeling.

How can blood flow communicate letters?  According to a BBC piece on the subject, a study was done by the British Neurological Association, which found that for each letter in the alphabet, the blood flow in the brain produces different patterns of blood flow.  The fMRI can then watch this blood flow and translate it into the corresponding letter.  These all are put together and can communicate words that might give doctors or families a clue as to how the patient is feeling.

To think this can be done by measuring brain blood flow is remarkable.  The fMRI thus has functions beyond just that of being able to tell whether a person has any brain activity, which in many cases is used to determine life or death choices for a patient's family.  It also shows that medical science continues to progress with the tools that they have. 

This was not the first time that a study of this type had taken place, but this latest one expounded on the earlier one.  In previous studies, the fMRI allowed patients to answer questions via the technique.  They did so though by doing the mutliple choice type route.  It gave the paralyzed or vegetative state patient the ability to select one letter or the other, thus answering questions they were asked, while indicating that they were not brain dead at the same time.  This latest study though gives the patient the ability to produce words, and possibly thoughts, instead of simply answering a yes or no questions with a one letter response.

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