Alberta-developed device helps mobility-challenged kids turn thoughts into action

Click to play video: '‘It’s a new world’: Alberta innovation helps kids with motor impairments control devices with their mind'
‘It’s a new world’: Alberta innovation helps kids with motor impairments control devices with their mind
WATCH: Researchers in Alberta are making groundbreaking progress in developing Think2Switch, which would allow a child with complex physical needs to control and operate electronic devices with their brain. Heather Yourex-West explains – Nov 28, 2022

The first time Claire Sonnenberg made a light switch on, using just her thoughts alone, her face lit up as well.

“Her smile just said it all,” Claire’s mother, Stephanie Sonnerberg, recalls.

The six-year-old Calgary girl was born with cerebral palsy. She isn’t able to speak and a lot of movements are challenging as well.

“It can be very hard to watch because she has so much to say and she wants to do so much, but her body and diagnosis really limits how she can get her movements out and her words across,” says Stephanie Sonnenberg.

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Children like Claire have access to a number of options when it comes to adaptive technology.

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The technology can rely on small hand movements or read little directions from the child’s eyes. The Thank2Switch device, developed by researchers at the Universities of Calgary and Alberta, uses brain-computer interface (BCI) technology to turn a child’s thoughts into action.

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“With the brain control interface, we can just put sensors on someone’s skull. It’s non-invasive, it detects what the brain signals are doing,” said Dr. Kim Adams, University of Alberta’s Assistive Technology Lab Director.

“In Claire’s case, she thinks about kicking and that makes part of her motor cortex fire up and say, ‘Oh! I need to make a switch output right now.'”

That switch output comes from the Think2Switch, a device compatible with most commercially available BCI headsets, as well as numerous devices that are switch-adapted, meaning they are customized to be more accessible.

“(Think2Switch) can control many things,” says Adams. “The assisted technology world has created a lot of switch-adapted toys and it can even be used for power mobility (such as wheelchairs).”

The device has helped the Sonnenbergs integrate the technology into Claire’s day-to-day life. Using it, she can now participate in preparing dinner, baking and family games.

“We can play musical chairs and she’s the D.J.,” says Stephanie.

“She does pasta-making, she plays video games. We try to find a new activity once a month to add to it.”

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BCI is not a new technology but its applications for children with complex physical needs are quickly becoming more accessible for families.

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“It’s pretty amazing how far this technology has come in the last 20 years, but it’s really in the past seven or eight years that it’s really taken off,” said Dr. Eli Kinney-Lang, lead scientist with the University of Calgary’s BCI4Kids program.

“Part of what’s exciting about working with kids is they have the ability to really learn this technology in a way that (adults) might struggle with and it gives them opportunities to develop in a lot of ways that they see their peers developing.”

Claire’s mom says it’s introduced her daughter and the rest of the family to a whole new world. A world, she hopes, will one day include an opportunity for Claire to use BCI to aid with communication and mobility, as well.

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