Doctors in Germany have developed a method for patients who have locked-in syndrome to communicate with basic “yes” or “no” answers. While it’s all too common these days to observe that a story is “straight out of Black Mirror,” this one comes with a twist that even the show’s creator had to acknowledge would be a perfect plot line.
The groundbreaking study was published in the journal PLOS Biology yesterday, and it outlines how the researchers were able to successfully use near-infrared spectroscopy to communicate with patients who have completely locked-in syndrome, or CLIS.
The four patients all have amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS. Many people who suffer from the disease become locked-in but are still able to communicate with eye movement. Those who become completely locked-in don’t have that option, but this new technique could be a vital lifeline for them.
The BBC explains how it works:
The activity of brain cells can change oxygen levels in the blood, which in turn changes the colour of the blood.
And scientists were able to peer inside the brain using light to detect the blood’s colour, through a technique called near-infrared spectroscopy.
They then asked the patients yes-or-no questions such as: “Your husband’s name is Joachim?” to train a computer to interpret the brain signals.
The system achieved an accuracy of about 75%.
That level of accuracy means that patients have to be asked multiple times to be sure their answer is correct. Even with only the option of saying “yes” or “no,” this is a game changer for people who suffer from this debilitating condition. Niels Birbaumer, a neuroscientist at the University of Tübingen who worked on this research, tells The Guardian, “It’s the first sign that completely locked-in syndrome may be abolished forever, because with all of these patients, we can now ask them the most critical questions in life.” But people may not always like the answers they get from their loved ones and that’s where Black Mirror comes in.
Brooker’s tweet refers to a patient who is 61-years-old and has a 26-year-old daughter who wanted her locked-in father’s blessing for her upcoming wedding. He was asked ten times if he approved, and nine times he said “no.” It’s one thing to ask your father for a symbolic blessing, it’s another to have to do it ten times in a row and constantly get shot down, and it’s even worse when you can’t get an explanation. “We don’t know why he said no,” Professor Ujwal Chaudhary, who worked as a researcher on the project, told the BBC. “But they got married… nothing can come between love.”
Now, that kind of ending wouldn’t be enough for a show as dark as Black Mirror. Brooker and his fellow writers would surely have to lay it on heavy and make it worse with the patient being stuck with malfunctioning gear or something.
Still, one of the key themes of the show has always been that tech isn’t entirely good or bad, it just has unexpected consequences. Birbaumer said one of the positive surprises was that “these patients reported being ‘happy’ despite being physically locked-in and incapable of expressing themselves on a day-to-day basis, suggesting that our preconceived notions about what we might think if the worst was to happen are false.”