A research team from the University of Malaga has developed a prototype that combines scalp sensors and a graphical interface to allow people with severe motor disabilities to communicate with others. The device reads brain activity and transmits it to a computer which, along with virtual voice assistants, sends the text through instant messaging services or by email to the patient’s contacts.
The results of this study, developed by the UMA-BCI group with healthy people, confirm the relevance of this system to start testing it with patients with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), chronic Guillain-Barré syndrome. and other similar neurological diseases which induce a progressive weakening of the motor system. This condition completely isolates those affected, causing what is known as lock-in syndrome, as it prevents them from interacting with the outside world. Being able to maintain interaction with others could improve their quality of life.
In this way, the device makes it possible to send text messages to contacts on a smartphone even if the patient cannot blink. The system uses a brain-computer interface (BCI), assistive technology based on the user’s brain signals and an external device that “translates” them. Experts suggest the use of this system in the article ‘Brain-Computer Interface (BCI) Control of a Virtual Assistant in a Smartphone to Manage Messaging Applications’ published in the journal Sensors as a valid option to transmit brain activity without the intervention of any physical action.
There are currently more robust and effective systems for giving speech and movement to people with motor disabilities, but they require the use of physical activity, even minimal.
“What is really new about this project is that the voice assistant is used to control messaging applications and only requires brain activity without any other action on the part of the patient like blinking or moving. eyepieces, ”said the Fundación Descubre, according to Francisco Velasco. , researcher at the University of Malaga and one of the authors of the article.
Although the prototype has been successfully tested, further studies are still needed before it can be marketed. It is necessary to perform tests with real patients to validate its suitability. Nevertheless, it is considered to be an effective tool to improve the lives of patients and their relatives or caregivers.
Get out of isolation
The system involves placing a device on the patient’s head, who will see different options flashing on a screen. The user mentally counts the number of times the icon they want to use lights up. When the chosen application has been turned on a predetermined number of times, it will be opened. The same procedure is then repeated with the different menus that appear, such as the contacts in their directory.
If the patient chooses the Whatsapp application and selects the sender and the text he wants to send, the system sends a synthesized voice command, like “Ok Google” on Android devices, which will be played by a virtual assistant and executed on the smartphone.
With some illnesses, such as ALS, the patient experiences a gradual loss of autonomy because their mobility is reduced to such an extent that they are no longer even able to control the blinking function. “In total isolation, unable to move or interact in any way with the people around him, the patient’s intellectual capacities deteriorate further, in addition to the loss of motor skills”, underlines the researcher. .
For this reason, the experts propose to test the device in real situation with patients with severe motor disabilities, because it could help these people to interact longer with those around them. In addition, it would allow to deepen the disease and to know, for example, if it causes an alteration of consciousness, which is not yet certain. “The theories of the scientific community suggest that ALS does not affect consciousness, but limits it only at the muscular level. The mind is atrophied by isolation, but not due to brain dysfunction. This system is said to help in keep advanced stage patients active for longer, ”says the researcher.
Experts also plan to keep improving the system to make the device affordable and usable, as well as optimizing the algorithms to reduce possible errors when selecting the different options.
This research was funded by the Spanish Ministry of Science, Innovation and Universities through the project “Brain interaction system to help people with captivity syndrome” and by the own funds of the University of Malaga .
Velasco-Álvarez, F., et al. (2021) Control of the brain-computer interface (BCI) of a virtual assistant in a smartphone to manage messaging applications. Sensors. doi.org/10.3390/s21113716.