ALS breakthroughs: New technology solutions are the key to communication


In recent years, research into the causes and treatment of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, has received tremendous support from the public and the scientific community.

In 2014, the Ice Bucket Challenge had individuals and celebrities generating donations and spreading awareness by dumping buckets of icy water over their heads. The contributions from the challenge, which amounted to over $115 million, led to the recent discovery of NEK1, a gene which experts now believe to be a genetic factor for ALS.

Research advances continue to grow in the realm of consumer technology and advanced computer-assisted solutions.

ALS in the public mind
The disease, which first entered the public consciousness in 1939 thanks to Lou Gehrig's famous speech at Yankee Stadium, has continued to be a subject of intense scientific research. According to the ALS Association, it is estimated that about 30,000 Americans are currently affected by ALS with an average of 15 people newly diagnosed each day.

Today, the effects of ALS are kept fresh in the public mind by advocates such as former Carolina Panthers player Tim Shaw, who announced in 2014 that he was diagnosed with the disease. According to For The Win, Shaw has been involved with a number of experimental treatments since his diagnosis and has been an advocate for spreading public awareness.

Another celebrity living with ALS, theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, is well known for his significant scientific achievements in addition to relying on computer software to communicate. Technology similar to that which Hawking uses will soon come to smartphones by way of an app developed by Microsoft.

New Scientist reported that Microsoft will be unveiling the app in May. The app uses the smartphone's camera to track eye movements. The listener places a grid sticker on the back of their phone which contains letters. The speaker moves their eyes in the direction of a letter, and the app selects the letter and predicts words similar to the auto-complete feature of a texting app. This marks not only an improvement in technology, but makes this computer-assisted solution much more affordable for consumers.

The Ice Bucket Challenge helped to raise over $115 million for ALS research.The Ice Bucket Challenge helped raise over $115 million for ALS research.

Developments in late-stage ALS communication
Eye movement technology such as the new Microsoft app unfortunately do not work for those with late-stage ALS, who are completely unable to move. This is known as locked-in syndrome. Those with locked-in syndrome are completely unable to communicate with others. But a new development in brain-computer interfacing could open up a new channel of communication.

Medical News Today reported on a new technology from international researchers at the Wyss Center for Bio and Neuroengineering in Geneva. The new device measures blood-oxygen levels in the brain to determine if the patient replied yes or no to a posed question. The researchers found that 70 percent of the questions prompted a correct response from the patients in the study - an unprecedented breakthrough. The next step is for researchers to duplicate the results of their studies in a larger set of patients.

As the public remains involved with ALS research, progress toward new treatments is likely to become more efficient. New technology solutions are a key way to increase the communication abilities of people living with the disease.

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