ALS Patient Posts 1st Tweet Using Stentrode Brain Computer Interface

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by Mary Chapman |

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A recent tweet by an Australian amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) patient using an implantable brain computer interface called Stentrode is said to be the first time a message has been posted on social media with the help of such technology.

By using this brain computer interface, developed by Synchron, 62-year-old Philip O’Keefe turned his direct thought into text with this post: “hello, world! Short tweet. Monumental progress.”

In what Synchron called an “important moment,” O’Keefe then followed with another tweet: “no need for keystrokes or voices. I created this tweet just by thinking it. #helloworldbci.”

The tweets were posted to the account of Thomas Oxley, MD, PhD, Synchron’s CEO, on Dec. 22. At press time, the “hello, world” tweet had garnered 11,168 likes and had been retweeted 5,657 times.

O’Keefe received the Stentrode brain computer interface (BCI) in 2020 following progressive paralysis caused by ALS. He’s since used the technology to email family and business colleagues.

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He said he wanted to share his experience of regained independence so as to inspire others.

“When I first heard about this technology, I knew how much independence it could give back to me,” O’Keefe said in a press release. “The system is astonishing, it’s like learning to ride a bike — it takes practice, but once you’re rolling, it becomes natural.

“Now, I just think about where on the computer I want to click, and I can email, bank, shop, and now message the world via Twitter,” O’Keefe said.

In a follow-up post, O’Keefe tweeted: “My hope is that I’m paving the way for people to tweet through thoughts”

According to a tweet by Oxley, O’Keefe posted seven times and “liked” several posts in the half-hour he “took over” Oxley’s @tomoxl account. O’Keefe used that 30 minutes to make statements and answer questions about his use of the Stentrode technology.

“Thank you Philip! You are an inspiration to us and an absolute legend! We have loved working with you,” Oxley’s post states.

O’Keefe’s advanced paralysis had rendered him unable to engage in work-related or other independent activities, and had limited his ability to keep up with relatives. Since the implant, he’s been able to reconnect with family and communicate via email with colleagues involved in his consultancy and other business efforts.

Stentrode is a minimally invasive device that transmits signals from the brain’s motor cortex, a region responsible for voluntary movement, into a computer. Similar devices require open brain surgery for implementation. What sets Stentrode apart, according to the company, is that it’s inserted in the brain through a small neck incision and then moved through the jugular vein. Ultimately, it’s positioned in the blood vessels adjacent to the motor cortex.

Without blocking blood flow, Stentrode subsequently expands and grows into vessel walls. Then, signals of brain activity linked to intended movement are sent through a wire to a small sensor that’s implanted under the skin on the user’s chest. The sensor then wirelessly sends the data to a computer or smartphone.

Patients such as O’Keefe are able to control an on-screen cursor and make keyboard demands simply by using their thoughts and eye movements.

An upcoming COMMAND trial, which will enroll six patients, will assess whether Stentrode can help ALS patients and other individuals who live with severe paralysis to regain functional independence and the ability to communicate online.

Synchron now is evaluating Stentrode, which federal regulators approved in 2020 as a breakthrough device, in an Australia-based clinical study (NCT03834857). That trial, called SWITCH, includes four severely paralyzed patients — two with ALS.

“These fun holiday tweets are actually an important moment for the field of implantable brain computer interfaces,” Oxley said. “They highlight the connection, hope, and freedom that BCIs give to people like Phil who have had so much of their functional independence taken away due to debilitating paralysis.”

On Twitter user called O’Keefe’s tweet “an amazing milestone.”

“We look forward to advancing our brain computer interface, Stentrode, in the first U.S. in-human study [in 2022],” Oxley said.