Ulster University scientists are teaming up with partners across Europe to help develop technology to enable people impaired through illnesses, brain and spinal injuries to communicate using the power of thought.
Called the BRAIN project, the research consortium includes Philips, Spanish telecommunications operator Telefónica, Twente Medical Systems International from the Netherlands, the University of Warsaw and the University of Bremen in Germany.
‘BRAIN stands for Brain-Computer Interface (BCI) with Rapid Automated Interfaces for Non-experts,’ explained Dr Paul McCullagh from the Computer Science Research Institute.
‘At Ulster, we will create an intuitive interface that uses brain activity to communicate via a computer and to also control a number of domestic appliances such as television, doors and lights. The design of the interface and the applications chosen will be influenced by the potential users of the equipment.
‘There are some very debilitating diseases such as Lou Gehrig’s disease where people are “locked in” – the patient is aware and awake, but cannot move or communicate due to complete paralysis of nearly all voluntary muscles in the body.
‘These people have little or no opportunity to interact with loved ones, carers, home appliances or personal computers. But this technology could change that and eventually it will be available to the wider population.’
The project’s focus is on upgrading current BCI systems, which provide a direct communication pathway between brain signals and external devices.
‘This new technology will improve BCI reliability, flexibility, usability and accessibility while minimising dependence on outside help,’ said McCullagh.
Northern Ireland charity, the Cedar Foundation, which provides support for people with disabilities, is also involved in the three-year project. Some of its service users have agreed to help with the design and to test out the new equipment.
‘We provide living accommodation including Smart Housing, which enables the dweller to have independence via a remote control to operate doors, windows, TV and heating,’ said Eileen Thomson, deputy chief executive of the Cedar Foundation.
‘But a number of our tenants can’t use their fingers and therefore can’t press the remote control. This project will open up opportunities for people who can’t communicate physically and have lost their power of speech. Some of this work has been tested in large research laboratories but this is the first time people in their homes have been involved.’
The European Union has awarded a grant of £2m to fund the research including just over £300,000 to Ulster University.