A research team from University of Málaga developed a prototype that combines sensors on the scalp and a graphic interface so that people with a severe impairment of motor skills can communicate with their environment. The device reads brain activity and materializes it in a computer that, with virtual voice assistants, sends the text through instant messaging or email to patient contacts.
The results of this study, developed by the group UMA-BCI with healthy people, they confirm their suitability to start testing in patients affected by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), the Guillain-Barré syndrome , chronic and other similar neurological diseases that progressively weaken the motor system. These diseases completely isolate the patient to the point of causing what is known as captivity syndrome, not being able to relate to the outside. The fact of being able to maintain interaction with the environment could Improve your quality of life.
The device allows text messages to be sent to contacts even though the patient cannot even blink. The system uses a brain-computer interface (BCI), a type of assistive technology based on users’ brain signals and an external device that ‘translates’ them. In this way, the experts propose the use of this system in the article ‘Brain-Computer Interface (BCI) Control of a Virtual Assistant in a Smartphone to Manage Messaging Applications’ from the journal ‘Sensors’ as a valid option to output brain activity without the intervention of any physical action.
Currently, there are more robust and effective systems to give voice and movement to people with motor difficulties, but there must be physical activity, even if it is minimal. “The really novel thing about this project is that messaging applications are controlled through the voice assistant. being only necessary that there is brain activity and without requiring any other action on the part of the patient, such as blinking or eye movements”, he indicates to the Discover Foundation the researcher of the University of Málaga Francisco Velasco, article author.
Although the prototype has been successfully tested, studies still need to be done for it to be available on the market. Tests with real patients must be carried out to validate its suitability. Despite this, it is postulated as an effective tool to improve the lives of patients and their families or caregivers.
Come out of isolation
The system consists of placing a device on the person’s head to which different flashing options will be shown on a screen. The user it will mentally count the times the chosen icon lights up. When you reach a predetermined number, the chosen application will open. Next, this same action is repeated in the different menus that will appear, for example, in the contacts of your agenda.
In the event that the patient has chosen the WhatsApp application and selected the sender and the text they want to send, the system sends a synthesized voice command, such as ‘Ok Google’ on Android devices, is interpreted by a virtual assistant and executed on the smartphone.
In some diseases, such as ALS, the patient sees their independence progressively diminished as their mobility is reduced to the point of not even being able to control their blinking. “In total isolation, without being able to move or interact in any way with their environment, the patient accentuates the deterioration of their intellectual capacities, which are added to their motor ones”, describes the researcher.
For this reason, the researchers test the device in real environments with patients with severe motor disabilities, as it could help these people maintain their relationship with those around them for longer. In addition, it would allow us to delve into the disease and find out, for example, if there is a deterioration in consciousness, something about which we are still not certain.
The experts also propose to continue improving the system in order to obtain an affordable and usable device and optimize the algorithms to reduce possible errors in the selection of options.