2016 International Symposium - Dublin · Healthcare · Insights

Highlights from the final of ALS/MND Assistive Technology Challenge


Alongside the International Symposium on ALS/MND, Karen Pearce’s trip to Dublin in December included attending a number of other, MND-related meetings. The first meeting she attended was the final stage of the Prize4Life Assistive Technology Challenge, sponsored by the ALS Association. The aim of the Challenge was to generate the development of flexible, accessible technology to help people with ALS/MND communicate with ease.

The five shortlisted teams had been through a number of hoops over many months. The final stage on Monday 5 December, was the climax of many months of activity. Karen is one of the MND Association’s Directors of Care, in this post she’s explained the technologies presented.

Each team were invited to present their design, demonstrating that it could be scalable, affordable and ready to launch within two to three years. The judges were a group of scientists and technology experts and a person with MND. While the judges were making their deliberations, a number of people with MND at different stages of disease were able to try out the prototypes.

The results were incredible! Below I’ve described the devices developed by the five finalists. These are prototypes, so there is more work to be done, however they are extremely exciting developments which I think we will see more of in the next year or so.

Fast, barcode-based brain computer interface
The first innovation I looked at was developed by the Donders Brain Computer Interface (BCI) group from The Netherlands. The system used a development called ‘noise tagging’ with letters or features on a screen flickering at a rate that the brain could identify, as though it was looking at a bar code. The person with MND would wear a head band with dry electrodes. As they looked at the letter, the brain recognised the ‘bar code’ and the letter appeared on the screen. Around one letter a second could be achieved, with over 95% accuracy (this BCI could write the last sentence – 68 characters including spaces – in 1 minute 8 seconds). The team have plans to add environmental control features to the system too.

I was a little worried about the flickering screen and people who may also have epilepsy. However, I was reassured by comments from one of the judges, Professor Ammar Al-Chalabi who commented that this would not be a concern.

I was hugely impressed with the prototype and will be in touch with the team in The Netherlands. I am also delighted to say the judges were really impressed too and awarded them first prize receiving $300,000 to develop the technology further.

Slight electrical activity in muscles drive assistive technologies
A second prize of $100,000 went to the Pison team from Massachusetts, USA who had developed wireless sensors that a person with MND would attach to different parts of their body. The device detects electrical activity in muscles – even if the person with MND has no movement in that area any longer. This could then be linked through to the person’s computer support communication, access entertainment and environmental controls and to control their wheelchairs. The sensors could also capture data on muscle activity and give neurologists useful information about the progression of the disease in almost real time.

Eye gaze that adjusts to changes in position
The BlueSky Design team from Minneapolis had a really interesting invention that would address the common problem of having to re-calibrate eye gaze controlled speech devices when the person with MND changed their position. The powered positioning system used a camera and facial feature recognition software that would automatically reposition the communication aid and could be used in a bed or on a wheelchair. I got some really useful information on their mounting systems which we will look at in the coming months.

New software for managing message banking
If people with MND would like to bank voice messages that are individual to them it can be a long and labour intensive process – both for them and for the assistive technology team supporting them. This is a problem that John Costello, the Director of ALS Augmentative Communication Programme in Boston, USA wanted to address. He demonstrated a new software application that will be an enormous benefit in getting the voicebanking messages sorted quickly, and shared with the person with MND. I asked if anyone could access this system no matter where they lived in the world, and they confirmed that this is possible.

We are really interested in ensuring people with MND have as much information about voice messaging and voice banking as possible and will be talking to John Costello in the New Year to ensure we can give people with MND and professionals more information as the system develops.

Wearable switches for communication aids
The last team I spoke to was Project Vive from Pennsylvania. They had designed a system that used different wearable switches to help a person communicate. The switch links to a scanning system, similar to that used in many software programmes available. However the person wears an ear piece to hear the selection rather than having the person who they are talking to looking at their computer screen as often happens currently. The wearable switches developed include those for the elbow, foot or knee as well as a glove.

All five shortlisted technologies were fantastic developments, all with the potential to make a difference. I am particularly excited about the future possibilities brain computer interface technology will bring to people with MND.

More information
More information on the Assistive Technology Challenge is available on the ALS Association’s website. The MND Association website has information on assistive technologies for people living with MND and for health and social care professionals .

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