Brainwave technology breakthrough?

August 6, 2014 in Medical Technology

In a project that could be a boon for ALS patients, and potentially others with neurodegenerative conditions, Philips and Accenture have developed proof-of-concept technology that enables users to control devices using brainwaves.

The idea is to combine the wearable Insight technology from Emotiv — a wireless headset that monitors brainwaves and can translate them into data — with devices developed by Philips, offering more autonomy to patients with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and, perhaps someday, other debilitating diseases.

[See also: Google Glass gets wearable neuro app]

“We’ve been studying Emotiv brainware, and one day, through a series of brainstorms and conversations, it occurred to us that this was the perfect device for people with limited mobility,” Brent Blum, who leads wearable technology RD at Accenture Technology Labs, tells Healthcare IT News. “As a team, we thought of ALS in particular being a right fit: The mind stays quite sharp; the body atrophies rather quickly, but your mind and thoughts are quite present.”

Affecting more than 400,000 people each year, ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease, attacks brain and spinal nerve cells, sapping voluntary muscle control. In late stages, patients often become paralyzed while retaining normal brain function.

“Wearable technology really has a potential here to improve the lives of these patients and allow them to have more independence, more freedom and to control the world around them,” says Blum.

[See also: Brain wellness technology market set to top $1B by end of 2012]

Philips and Accenture have previously worked together on projects like the one in 2013 that explored ways to deliver patient data via Google Glass during surgery. For this project San Jose, Calif.-based Accenture Technology Labs worked with the Philips Digital Accelerator Lab in the Netherlands.

“We enjoyed the previous project we did,” said Anthony Jones, MD, vice president and chief marketing officer for patient care and monitoring solutions at Philips. “Both sides have a sense of urgency, a creativity and a willingness to try to solve some very practical issues by using off-the-shelf technology and finding out what we can do when we integrate it in different ways. When Accenture approached us about this one, it wasn’t a question of if, but when we would start.”

Indeed, the project development didn’t take “tremendously long,” says Blum. “I’d say about four months ago we got started.”

The proof of concept shows how Emotiv Insight Brainware, which scans EEG brain signals, can be connected to a tablet app, enabling users to send brain commands to control Philips products, including its Lifeline Medical Alert Service, SmartTV and Hue wireless lighting systems.

“At the heart of this is a tablet application,” says Blum. “One of the design challenges in building this was that we weren’t quite sure where a given patient would be in their progression of the disease. But as system integrators we had a lot of confidence that we could pull together the Philips connected devices and give patients the ability to interact in a variety of different ways.”

While wearing the Emotiv headset, users take part in a simple series of 15-minute training exercise in which they navigate a menu – up/down, left/right – to initiate a command for a given device, Blum explains. “That’s what locks in the device for each given patient.”

One way to move “up” might be to “think of a hot air ballon rising,” he says. “We’ve found that the training is even more accurate if you combine a visual thought, like the hot air balloon, with something else sensory, like maybe (thinking of) the wind against your skin. It takes a bit of focus. It’s not like I could accidentally think of a hot air balloon and the cursor would move up – you have to come to that thought, and stay on it.”

“It’s very impressive,” says Jones. “You can take something that is literally a series of applications – the smart TV, the Lifeline and the Hue – and very easily integrate them into an app. Then, just by teaching somebody some relatively simple commands, you can just bridge a pretty massive void.”

Accenture and Philips developed the software that allows integration and interaction between these technologies, which can also be controlled via eye and voice commands – enabling users to communicate preset messages, request medical assistance and control lights and TVs.

What’s next? “Right now it is purely a proof-of-concept demonstration project,” says Jones. “It’s really designed to learn. We want to learn what we can from it, stimulate discussion and identify additional partners who might be able to identify something that has commercial potential. This might have commercial potential, it’s just too early to tell right now.

Typically, he adds, “what comes out of these is somebody will approach you and say, ‘We have a very specific application for what you just showed. Can we apply it to this particular setting?’ That can often be the jumping-off point for commercial exploration. It’s still a little too early to know for sure. But we’re hopeful.

“It’s hard to say if EEG monitors will be the future of wearable technology,” says Blum. “But certainly, I think it’s clear that there is exponential value to integrating different wearable technologies, specifically in healthcare. That will become much more commonplace — and not just for serious conditions such as ALS but for everyday health and fitness.”

For patients with ALS — or who have suffered strokes, or are paraplegics — a technology like this could be a game-changer.

“When you talk to a patient who is that dependent you find out pretty quick how frustrating it is, having to ask for help for virtually everything,” says Jones. “If you can just restore some of that it has a huge impact on their quality of life.”

“Empowering people with Lou Gehrig’s disease to live fuller lives is at the heart of the ALS Association’s mission,” said Ineke Zaal, spokesperson for Stichting ALS, in the Netherlands, in a press statement. “We are tremendously excited about the potential for this proof of concept to give people with ALS greater independence and quality of life as we continue to actively search for a cure.”

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