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Research Profile: Cerebral Palsy

By Prof. Alistair McEwan, Cerebral Palsy Alliance, University of Sydney

Technology is improving the lives of people with disabilities

Cerebral Palsy AllianceAdvances in mobility, communication and thought-to-speech technologies are progressing at such a speed that two Cerebral Palsy Alliance (CPA) research staff are convinced major breakthroughs are not far away.

Professor Alistair McEwan, Ainsworth Chair of Technology and Innovation, Cerebral Palsy Alliance and School of Electrical and Information Engineering, University of Sydney, and Dr Petra Karlsson, Senior Research Fellow, Brain and Mind Centre, Cerebral Palsy Alliance Research Institute, became aware of these advances at a recent conference held in San Francisco.

The Advancing Innovation in Assistive Technology Summit, held in May, was funded by CPA. It was organised and facilitated by Cerebral Palsy Alliance Research Foundation’s IMPACT for CP and attracted 74 thought leaders from 12 countries.

“The summit was a huge success, assisted by the people with cerebral palsy who attended and encouraged participants to create mobility, communication and thought-to-speech technologies to improve the lives of people with a disability,” says Petra.

Alistair and Petra agree that the discussions and demonstrations indicate that major breakthroughs in these areas are not far off. The BrainGate video is an example of a thought-controlled robotic arm in action.

The BrainGate Research Team at Brown University, Massachusetts General Hospital, Stanford University, Case Western Reserve University, and Providence VA Medical Centre comprises clinicians, scientists, and engineers working together to advance understanding of human brain function and to develop neuro-technologies for people with neurologic disease, injury or limb loss.

“Watch the BrainGate video and look for the joyous moment when the woman takes a drink without assistance for the first time since she lost the use of her arms,” Alistair says.

Alistair points out that while BrainGate is an example of “invasive” technology, it is similar to a Cochlear implant that is now widely accepted and implanted in toddlers. However, non-invasive technologies are also being explored.

Other examples of technology in action shown at the summit included:

  • Talkitt, an app that translates difficult speech into words family and carers can understand.
  • Exoskeletons that allow people with a disability to walk by themselves. There is a Spanish video of CP walker which shows a girl graduate from a wheelchair to walking without crutches!

“There are clear breakthrough opportunities in providing long-term, rapid, intuitive, useful communication and mobility for people with cerebral palsy using technology such as artificial intelligence, flexible technology and robotics,” Alistair says.

With these in mind, the participants in the summit have set three goals to be reached by 2021:

  • engage five people with cerebral palsy participating in today’s ongoing clinical trials to restore communication
  • provide children less than two years of age with access to devices that enhance their mobility
  • break down the barrier to the human right to communicate by accurately assessing the learning and use ability of children and adults with severe complex communication needs.

“There is a lot of great work being done,” Alistair says. “Through a novel and multidisciplinary approach, researchers, people with lived experiences, clinicians, engineers and industry partners are joining forces.”

This allows them to stimulate development that leverages newly available technologies, such as virtual reality, voice recognition and modern software, to design solutions that hold the key to unlock vast potential in people with severe disabilities, who today have limited means to learn, play and communicate.

“We look forward to seeing the progress that will be made by bringing experts together globally and defining a common strategy and research priorities as proposed at the technology summit,” he says.

Reprint from Cerebral Palsy Alliance.

Prof. Alistair McEwanProf. Alistair McEwan
Cerebral Palsy Alliance
University of Sydney

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