JUL 13, 2015 12:43 PM PDT

Supporting Those with Cerebral Palsy

A group of scientists from various organizations has come together to help people to communicate, bringing together neuroscience and technology.
Researchers are working on a device that enables those with cerebral palsy to communicate their emotions through sounds that come from brain signals.
According to the National Institute for Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), cerebral palsy (CP) refers to one of a number of neurological disorders that appear in infancy or early childhood and permanently affect body movement and muscle coordination but does not worsen over time. It is caused by abnormalities in parts of the brain that control muscle movements. Most often, CP begins at birth, although it may not be detected until months or years later. Early signs usually appear before a child reaches 3 years of age -- a lack of muscle coordination when performing voluntary movements (ataxia); stiff or tight muscles and exaggerated reflexes (spasticity); walking with one foot or leg dragging; walking on the toes, a crouched gait, or a "scissored" gait; and muscle tone that is either too stiff or too floppy. Sometimes CP is the result of brain damage early in life, brain infections such as bacterial meningitis or viral encephalitis, head injury or child abuse (http://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/cerebral_palsy/cerebral_palsy.htm).

Scientists at the Centre for Genomic Regulation (CRG), the research company Starlab and the group BR::AC (Barcelona Research Art & Creation) of the University of Barcelona think they have an answer. They have developed a device called Brain Polyphony that produces sounds from brain signals to help people with CP to communicate their feelings, as reported in Medical News Today (http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/releases/296674.php).

Led by Mara Dierssen, head of the Cellular & Systems Neurobiology group at CRG, the researchers are working with CRG and the association Pro-Personas con Discapacidades Físicas y Psíquicas (ASDI) from Sant Cugat del Vallès in a pilot phase with healthy and disabled volunteers. According to Dierssen, "At the neuroscientific level, our challenge with Brain Polyphony is to be able to correctly identify the EEG signals--that is, the brain activity--that correspond to certain emotions. The idea is to translate this activity into sound and then to use this system to allow people with disabilities to communicate with the people around them. This alternative communication system based on sonification could be useful not only for patient rehabilitation but also for additional applications, such as diagnosis. Of course, the technological and computational aspects are also challenging. We have to ensure that both the device and the software that translates the signals can give us robust and reproducible signals, so that we can provide this communication system to any patient."

While other signal transduction systems (using brain-computer interfaces) are undergoing testing for people with disabilities, most of them require a certain level of motor control, which represents a major constraint for people with cerebral palsy. Additionally, most of these other devices do not allow real-time analysis of the signals.

Brain Polyphony is designed to enable real-time analysis, starting from the moment the user puts on the interface device. It also enables researchers to directly "hear" brainwaves that can be translated into code words in real time. Brain Polyphony was the result of an internal initiative of the Center for Genomic Regulation (CRG), which seeks to promote multidisciplinary approaches and mainstreaming of basic research focused on patients and society, especially at an early stage.
About the Author
  • Ilene Schneider is the owner of Schneider the Writer, a firm that provides communications for health care, high technology and service enterprises. Her specialties include public relations, media relations, advertising, journalistic writing, editing, grant writing and corporate creativity consulting services. Prior to starting her own business in 1985, Ilene was editor of the Cleveland edition of TV Guide, associate editor of School Product News (Penton Publishing) and senior public relations representative at Beckman Instruments, Inc. She was profiled in a book, How to Open and Operate a Home-Based Writing Business and listed in Who's Who of American Women, Who's Who in Advertising and Who's Who in Media and Communications. She was the recipient of the Women in Communications, Inc. Clarion Award in advertising. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, Ilene and her family have lived in Irvine, California, since 1978.
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