For ALS patients and others who have lost the ability to communicate, a solution may be on the way.
Eric Sellers, an associate professor of psychology at ETSU, is conducting brainwave research that allows ALS patients to communicate words and sentences through a brain-computer interface, or BCI.
“I would like to see anyone who needs this technology able to have it provided to them and them use it, because it’s a really big quality of life improvement, not only for the patient, but especially for family members,” Sellers said. “When someone who can’t communicate has some means of communication returned to them, the family is just so excited about it.”
Sellers’s research involves recording the brainwaves from a research participant’s scalp and then modeling the participant’s brain signal to a stimulus the researcher tells the patient to pay attention to.
After this is modeled, the participant can look at a keyboard, and by using the model of the participant’s brainwaves, the computer can determine which key the participant is probably looking at. Then, the computer presses the key.
Sellers said research on assistive communication technologies has improved significantly since Sellers first began his research over a decade ago. Now, the system can make six “key strokes” per minute with 90 percent accuracy. Ten years ago, the system could only make one key stroke per minute and was accurate 60 percent of the time.
In addition to collecting data from non-ALS control subjects, Sellers’ research team is referred patients from three chapters of the ALS Association and four ALS clinics.
Though many scientists have argued eye-tracking devices are faster and more reliable than a brain-computer interface, Sellers’s recent research has demonstrated a BCI is more helpful for some people.
“Recently we’ve shown in several cases that you use a BCI because the eye-tracker does fail, so this is a new and exciting result that we have,” Sellers said.
Sellers, who began conducting this research in 2002, plans to continue his research on assistive communication technology for as many years as it takes to reach his ultimate goal.