The Walrus

Creating innovative tech to help kids communicat­e


Dr. Tom Chau, Vice President of Research and Director of the BRI, knows that non-verbal children have plenty to communicat­e, but without the means to speak— either due to degenerati­ve health conditions, brain injury or other physiologi­cal challenges – they may be underestim­ated or overlooked. His work in the PRISM Lab, at the BRI, aims to overcome that. “As human beings, so much of our identity is fixated on speech,” he explains, “but, in fact, there are so many other ways we can communicat­e with each other—we just need the right tools to unlock them.” One of the ways Dr. Chau and his lab are using technology to help kids facing this challenge is with personaliz­ed braincompu­ter interfaces ( BCI). Devices that can do this already exist, but they require a certain amount of physical dexterity or motor skills some children don’t possess, despite their cognitive capabiliti­es. For the past 20 years, the PRISM Lab has researched and developed assistive technologi­es, with an increasing focus on the emerging field of BCIS. Now at its forefront, the lab is partnering with Alberta Children’s Hospital (Calgary) and Glenrose Rehabilita­tion Hospital ( Edmonton) to continue this innovative research. Dr. Chau’s latest interface prototype is a cap that shines light into the brain to monitor blood oxygenatio­n to identify and harness specific patterns of brain activity. The cap can be worn and used to track and convert these patterns into specific actions, such as playing a video game using BCI technology—which some Holland Bloorview patients are already doing—or spelling words. Over the next 12 months this prototype will move from the research stage into clinical practice, thanks to a generous donation. “The potential for brain-based control is actually huge. We’re just at the tip of the iceberg.”

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