The brain-computer interface connects people to assistive technology

Imagine that children with severe motor problems are able to move their wheelchairs with their minds. This is the idea behind a new brain-computer interface developed by researchers at the Universities of Alberta and Calgary.

Kim Adams

Think2Switch is designed to be a simple, near-universal bridge that connects brain signals to switch-enabled devices such as a wheelchair, light or electric toy. It’s still in the early stages of development but early tests have been promising.

The device is the first winner of the ST Innovations Challenge. It was developed in partnership between the U of A Assistive Technology Lab, the U of C Children’s Brain-Computer Interface Program (BCI 4 Kids) and Ontario-based Ideas for Independent Living.

“Our brains are designed in a really lucky way that the motor cortex can be read and imagined movement activated directly from the electrodes just placed on your scalp,” said Eli Kenny Lange, chief scientist at BCI 4 Kids Calgary.

The brain-computer interface, or BCI, has emerged as a promising new way to connect people with assistive technologies. But it can be complex and often does not work easily with current devices, especially for children where research is limited.

“There is a huge gap in the BCI world around children, particularly in connectivity to devices that children might actually want to use,” said Kim Adams, associate professor in the U of A School of Rehabilitation Medicine and director of the Assistive Technology Laboratory.

“For children with limited mobility, being able to use their brain to operate a game would be a really valuable tool for beginners,” Adams said. “From that game, they may progress to controlling a toy or moving an electric wheelchair, and from there, they may progress to more controlling brain signals. I think it will slowly open up the world for them.”

“Currently, BCI headphones are cumbersome to use and are really geared toward engineers, researchers, and clinicians,” added Kenny Lang. “If you’re a parent looking for something like this right now for your child, you’re going to need a great deal of technical knowledge to be able to operate it and connect it to the adaptive devices you’re used to.”

With a $120,000 prize from the ST Innovations Challenge and a $30,000 contribution from Campus Alberta Neuroscience, the team will work to refine and improve the device with input from families and first testers over the next few months. From there, they plan to expand into a larger trial next year in partnership with other BCI teams across Canada and the United States, including the I CAN BCI program at Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital in Edmonton, with which Adams works closely.

“I think one of the great things about this group is that we share a common mindset, which sometimes doesn’t happen in these kinds of partnerships,” said Bill Johnson, president of IdeasFIL, the company that designed and built Think2Switch prototypes. “The reason we’re doing this is the same across the board: We all want to take this great idea and turn it into a solution for people.”

Smart Technology Innovations is the U of A non-profit center that develops health technology. It is the commercial arm of the Sensorimotor Rehabilitation Technology (SMART) network. The center removes barriers to health technology development and provides health innovation companies, entrepreneurs and innovators in Canada with customized preclinical services, engineering and clinical expertise connectivity. It is led by Vivian Mashhour, Professor in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, Director of the SMART Network and Canadian Research Chair in Functional Restoration.

The Innovation Challenge was launched in May to encourage participants to find an innovative solution to a major neuromuscular weakness. Teams must include a clinical partner, a business partner, and an academic partner, at least one of whom must be a member of the SMART network.

Think2Switch team members agreed that the approach was the key to their success.

“This competition was a unique way for us to move things forward,” said Adam Kirton, MD, a pediatric neurologist at Alberta Children’s Hospital and director of BCI 4 Kids. “Bringing the three parts Clinical, Academic and Industrial together is completely different than any scholarship I have had before. I think that’s great and I think that is the direction we have to go.”

“It changed the rules of the game,” Johnson added. “In the early stages, we were financing the project ourselves, but that was very limited. With this funding, we are really able to move this forward.”

| Written by Ryan O’Brien

Submitted by the University of Alberta’s online Folio magazine. The University of Alberta is Troy Media’s editorial content provider partner.

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