ALS assistive technology

How Assistive Technology is Helping Individuals with ALS

We’re lucky to be living in an age of great technological advancements. From smart phones to 3-D printing and the ‘Internet of Things’, technology seems to impact all aspects of our day to day living.

Nowhere is technological progress more important, in terms of improving people’s lives, than in the medical field. Without the influence of new tech solutions, many individual’s with major health challenges would lead a much poorer quality of life and face many more challenges each and every day.

One disease that has certainly been helped by recent advances in technology is amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). This is a serious, degenerative condition where the nerves begin to deteriorate and fail and a disease which continues to progresses with ultimately fatal consequences.

Only 50% of those diagnosed with ALS live more than three years and only 10% survive beyond 10. However, in rare cases, individuals have far exceeded the typical life expectancy following an ALS diagnosis. One notable example is that of the late Professor Stephen Hawking, who lived for over 50 years with a form of ALS.

Hawking himself was certainly a beneficiary of advancements made in the field of assistive technology during his years of living with ALS.

What is Assistive Technology?

Any form of technology that enables someone with a disability or health condition to live their daily life can be considered assistive technology.

Something as simple as a specially designed can-opener for someone with arthritis is an example of assistive technology. These gadgets, software and technological solutions allow people to perform everyday tasks that they are unable to do following their medical diagnosis.

The progressive nature the disease means that those living with ALS will increasingly face many big challenges, such as loss of speech and reduced mobility.

Here we take a look at three important pieces of assistive technology that are helping to make a big difference to many individuals living with ALS.

Eye-tracking Devices

Eye-tracking technology

One form of assistive technology that can help individuals with ALS is an eye-tracking device. ALS in its later stages can take away a person’s ability to speak or operate a keyboard manually. However, the patient is still typically able to control movement of their eyes even after many other functions have deteriorated.

By simply moving their eyes, those with late-stage ALS can type on a word processor and have real-time conversations with others. That’s not where the usefulness of eye-tracking technology ends, either. It can allow the user to switch on lights, control televisions and stereos that are operated by infrared and also access certain wireless devices.

The EyeControl system developed in Israel uses an app and specially designed eyeglasses to track eye movement which can then be transformed into messaging when someone is looking for assistance. It was primarily developed for individuals with locked-in syndrome but the potential for it to be used to help ALS patients is just as relevant.  

Speech Generating Devices

Stephen Hawking speech generating device

Speech generating devices (SGD), such as the ones famously used by the late Professor Stephen Hawking, can allow individuals to communicate audibly even after they have lost the ability to speak.

The range of SGDs available is quite astounding. There is software that converts written text to voice and other systems that can use different voice sounds to produce a conversation. A lot depends on the ability of the individual user and what they are capable of. Some may, for example, be able to type on keyboard, others might have to use eye-tracking to pick out the right words or sounds.

Brain Computer Interface (BCI)

Another example of assistive technology which has the potential to help individuals with ALS is known as Brain Computer Interface (BCI) technology. It allows individuals with ALS to use their own brainwaves to communicate with others. In the future, it could be used to work a machine like a wheelchair or even a prosthetic limb.

For individuals that have lost the ability to make voluntary movements, BCI is truly a technology that may well make a huge difference to their independence and daily living.

There are currently two ways in which Brain Computer Interface technology can be administered. The first is by transplanting the device directly into the human brain. The other is a non-invasive cap that is fitted over the head and attaches electrodes to the skull.

When a word or letter that a person is searching for and thinking about lights up, brainwave changes activate the choice. At the moment, however, this is quite slow but it’s an area of assistive technology that is developing quite rapidly.

Continuous Progress

While there is currently no cure for this disease, the potential for assistive technology to help individuals diagnosed with ALS to manage their symptoms is significant. Whereas in the past, individuals would have been unable to communicate once their condition deteriorated to a certain point, they can now potentially speak in real-time with friends, family and healthcare professionals.