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Technology Helps Children with Communication Disabilities
Detail: Scientists at Bloorview Kids Rehab in Toronto have developed a prototype device that allows a kind of mind-reading, using near-infrared light to decipher the brain's response when a person is offered a choice of two objects. The device is one part of a larger project to find alternative ways for children and youth robbed of communications skills by cerebral palsy and neuromuscular conditions to interact with people and their environment.

The headband-like device shines near-infrared light onto the forehead and detectors measure the light's intensity when it bounces back out again. In a study of nine healthy adults, published this month in the Journal of Neural Engineering, the scientists were able to decode a person's preference for one of two drinks displayed on a computer screen with an average accuracy of 80 per cent.

Sheena Luu, a PhD student in biomedical engineering who led the study, said "The light travels through the skin and the scalp and the bone and reaches the cortex, the top layer of the brain....We're reading the intensity of the light that has been absorbed by the brain tissue." When a region of the brain becomes active, it requires more oxygen. Increase in oxygen concentration changes the absorption of light that passes through that brain tissue. Luu explained, “...we can map out the areas of the brain that are active and non-active when a person looks at a drink that they like, compared to when they look at a drink they don't really like." A computer is used to recognize the unique pattern of brain activity associated with preference.

Supervising author, Tom Chau, a senior scientist at Bloorview, says that these individuals are cognitively capable. They are aware of their surroundings and understand what's going on. But they have no means of communicating their intentions or preferences to the outside world. The near-infrared brain-imaging device promises to open up a communication channel for children who cannot speak or move without having other people to second guess desires.
Date: March 12 2009