This Device Reads Paralyzed People’s Thoughts Through Their Veins

A brain implant inserted in the jugular allows ALS patients to type with their minds

Emily Mullin
Future Human
Published in
5 min readOct 28, 2020

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Photos: Synchron

Graham Felstead first noticed his left arm becoming weak in 2016. Two years later, he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a neurological disorder that culminates in paralysis of most voluntary muscles. Eventually, he lost the ability to use his arms and became completely reliant on his wife for the most basic of everyday tasks.

But after receiving a brain implant in August 2019, he’s gained back some of the independence. The implant, which connects wirelessly to his personal computer and other smart devices, allows Felstead, 75, to surf the web, check his email, and write Word documents using just his thoughts. Together, the system is known as a brain-computer interface.

“The device has allowed me to be productive again, including shopping, banking, and delegating tasks among the Rotary Club members with whom I volunteer,” he said in a statement released by Synchron, the Silicon Valley-based company that made his brain implant.

Graham and Philip O’Keefe, another ALS patient with paralysis, are the first two people to receive Synchron’s experimental brain-computer interface, which is inserted into a major vein in the neck rather than the brain. Doing so involves just a small incision into the neck — no brain surgery required, unlike other brain-computer interfaces. O’Keefe, 60, who got the implant in April, can now use a computer on his own to carry out work-related tasks and other activities.

Synchron’s CEO, Thomas Oxley, MD, PhD, describes the implant as “Bluetooth for the brain.”

“The big difference between what we have done with what previous approaches have done is that we do not put any needles into the brain or on top of the brain,” he tells Future Human. “The device stays inside the blood vessel.”

Felstead and O’Keefe just have to think about clicking a mouse or typing a letter and the computer does it for them. But learning how to use the system took extensive training with Synchron’s engineers. Three months after receiving the implant, they were able to use the device at their homes in…

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Emily Mullin
Future Human

Former staff writer at Medium, where I covered biotech, genetics, and Covid-19 for OneZero, Future Human, Elemental, and the Coronavirus Blog.