Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) is a neurodegenerative disorder causing a progressive motor weakness of all voluntary muscles, whose progression challenges communication modalities such as handwriting or speech. The current study investigated whether ALS subjects can use Eye-On-Line (EOL), a novel eye-operated communication device allowing, after training, to voluntarily control smooth-pursuit eye-movements (SPEM) so as to eye-write in cursive. To that aim, ALS participants (n = 12) with preserved eye-movements but impaired handwriting were trained during six on-site visits. The primary outcome of the study was the recognition of eye-written digits (0-9) from ALS and healthy control subjects by naïve "readers." Changes in oculomotor performance and the safety of EOL were also evaluated. At the end of the program, 69.4% of the eye-written digits from 11 ALS subjects were recognized by naïve readers, similar to the 67.3% found for eye-written digits from controls participants, with however, large inter-individual differences in both groups of "writers." Training with EOL was associated with a transient fatigue leading one ALS subject to drop out the study at the fifth visit. Otherwise, itching eyes was the most common adverse event (3 subjects). This study shows that, despite the impact of ALS on the motor system, most ALS participants could improve their mastering of eye-movements, so as to produce recognizable eye-written digits, although the eye-traces sometimes needed smoothing to ease digit legibility from both ALS subjects and control participants. The capability to endogenously and voluntarily generate eye-traces using EOL brings a novel way to communicate for disabled individuals, allowing creative personal and emotional expression.
Keywords: amyotrophic lateral sclerosis; assisted communication devices; motor learning; pilot clinical study; smooth-pursuit eye movements.