The challenge of controlling an auditory BCI in the case of severe motor disability

J Neuroeng Rehabil. 2024 Jan 18;21(1):9. doi: 10.1186/s12984-023-01289-3.


Background: The locked-in syndrome (LIS), due to a lesion in the pons, impedes communication. This situation can also be met after some severe brain injury or in advanced Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS). In the most severe condition, the persons cannot communicate at all because of a complete oculomotor paralysis (Complete LIS or CLIS). This even prevents the detection of consciousness. Some studies suggest that auditory brain-computer interface (BCI) could restore a communication through a « yes-no» code.

Methods: We developed an auditory EEG-based interface which makes use of voluntary modulations of attention, to restore a yes-no communication code in non-responding persons. This binary BCI uses repeated speech sounds (alternating "yes" on the right ear and "no" on the left ear) corresponding to either frequent (short) or rare (long) stimuli. Users are instructed to pay attention to the relevant stimuli only. We tested this BCI with 18 healthy subjects, and 7 people with severe motor disability (3 "classical" persons with locked-in syndrome and 4 persons with ALS).

Results: We report online BCI performance and offline event-related potential analysis. On average in healthy subjects, online BCI accuracy reached 86% based on 50 questions. Only one out of 18 subjects could not perform above chance level. Ten subjects had an accuracy above 90%. However, most patients could not produce online performance above chance level, except for two people with ALS who obtained 100% accuracy. We report individual event-related potentials and their modulation by attention. In addition to the classical P3b, we observed a signature of sustained attention on responses to frequent sounds, but in healthy subjects and patients with good BCI control only.

Conclusions: Auditory BCI can be very well controlled by healthy subjects, but it is not a guarantee that it can be readily used by the target population of persons in LIS or CLIS. A conclusion that is supported by a few previous findings in BCI and should now trigger research to assess the reasons of such a gap in order to propose new and efficient solutions.

Clinical trial registrations: No. NCT02567201 (2015) and NCT03233282 (2013).

Keywords: Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis; Auditory brain–computer interface; Event related potentials; Locked-in syndrome.

Publication types

  • Clinical Trial
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis*
  • Brain-Computer Interfaces*
  • Disabled Persons*
  • Electroencephalography
  • Humans
  • Locked-In Syndrome*
  • Motor Disorders*

Associated data