Thinking cap helps those with ALS

Imagine not being able to communicate your thoughts with family and friends.

That is what happens to many patients with ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease.

They lose the ability to walk and talk, even though their minds remain sharp.

Now, researchers are using the power of the mind and innovative technology to help these patients speak their minds.

Letters flash across the screen. Using only her mind, Jan Freeman will focus on them to form a message. For Jan, it is a new way to communicate.

Like others diagnosed with ALS, Jan 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.

Jan says, "I am excited about the research being done here at Duke."

Doctor Richard Bedlack says the new brain computer interface is a way to give ALS patients the ability to connect with those around them.

Dr. Bedlack, Director of the Duke ALS Clinic, says, “I always get the goose bumps when I, when we find something new here that we can give people back what this disease has taken away from them."

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

Dr. Bedlack says, “A person may eventually be able to spell, surf the internet, play games with their family with no movement left whatsoever."

For now, Jan remains grateful.

Jan says, “I truly know that each day is a gift and I am very thankful to have this time with my family and grandchildren."


REPORT: MB # 3757

BACKGROUND: Amyotrophic lateral disease (ALS) is a neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the spinal cord and brain. Often known as Lou Gehrig's disease, this deadly disease affects the motor neurons, which is related to the brain's ability to control muscle movement. ALS usually leads to involuntary muscle action, leaving patients paralyzed during late stages of the disease. (Source: and

SYMPTOMS: Early signs of ALS include trouble with speech, swallowing, muscle weakness, muscle cramps, and eventually trouble breathing. The disease will usually begin in the hands, feet, or limbs; then, it will spread to other regions of the body. Once the disease begins to spread, the muscles weaken until they become paralyzed. (Source:

TREATMENT: There are various forms of treatment available for ALS patients, depending on how severe the patient's symptoms are. There is not a cure for this disease, but medicine, physical therapy, occupational therapy, and speech therapy can aid in the relief of symptoms. Some medicines can slow down the disease and weaken symptoms, while therapy can provide exercises to improve mobility, muscle strength, and communication. (Source:

NEW TECHNOLOGY: Researchers at the Duke ALS Clinic are now using a brain-computer interface in order to help patients who have been immobilized by ALS. Wearing a "thinking cap," a cap with various electrodes monitoring brain activity, patients can simply look at a letter on a screen and make it form a word. The computer is designed to recognize a specific type of brainwave, called a P300. The P300 is a brainwave that only occurs when you see something you are particularly interested in. The computer can recognize a P300 when you see a letter that is part of a word you are trying to spell, and from there will determine which words are made up of those letters. In the future researchers hope to be able to use the system to help patients perform a variety of activities, from simply speaking to surfing the web. (Source: Dr. Richard Bedlack)


Richard S. Bedlack, MD, PhD

If this story or any other Ivanhoe story has impacted your life or prompted you or someone you know to seek or change treatments, please let us know by contacting Marjorie Bekaert Thomas at

Comments are posted from viewers like you and do not always reflect the views of this station.
powered by Disqus
WNDU - Channel 16 54516 State Road 933 South Bend, IN 46637 Front Desk: 574-284-3000 Newsroom: 574-284-3016 Email:
Gray Television, Inc. - Copyright © 2002-2014 - Designed by Gray Digital Media - Powered by Clickability 255211241 -