Giving Quadriplegics a Voice
Did you know in the U.S. alone, nearly half of the 250,000 spinal cord injuries each year result in quadriplegia, which can leave a person unable to write, type, or even speak?1 Recognizing the potential of technology to give a voice to the voiceless, Elisabeth Ashmore, an Intel International Science and Engineering Fair2 (ISEF) award winner, created a computer-brain interface that may give quadriplegics and others the ability to use brain waves to communicate via computer.
When Elisabeth Ashmore’s great uncle became severely paralyzed late in life, she saw the toll it took on him. For many quadriplegics, not only do they lose the ability to move their limbs and hands, but also—because paralysis affects the torso—they lose their ability to speak.
Recognizing the excruciating isolation caused by this condition, Ashmore was determined to help. So, for her junior science fair, the then-16 year old created a computer-brain interface that may one day give a voice back to the now voiceless, allowing quadriplegics to control a computer using only the power of their minds.
Ashmore’s prototype uses an electroencephalography (EEG) headset to chart electrical activity in the brain. When a user thinks about a specific action, neurons fire in a specific pattern. Ashmore used this data to create an algorithm that turns these electrical signals into movement on a computer screen. By simply thinking about moving a cursor right, left, up, or down, or controlling a mouse to select letters on a keyboard, users were able to make it happen. In testing with multiple users, Ashmore demonstrated proof of concept when her device achieved a cursor-accuracy record of 88 percent and mouse-control rate of 85 percent.
For this work, Ashmore earned a spot at the 2013 Intel ISEF, where she won a Second Award in Computer Science and a CERN Special Award, the latter of which included a week-long trip to the European Organization for Nuclear Research in Switzerland.
“Intel ISEF was so inspiring,” says Ashmore. “I met so many incredibly brilliant people who have all these great ideas. It really motivates me to keep pursuing science and discovery.”
Since Intel ISEF, Ashmore has worked to broaden application of her technology from a single computer-based program to a home automation system, which could give handicapped individuals the ability not only to communicate with others, but also control appliances in their home environment. This could be especially beneficial in the midst of the elder care crisis—since elders’ vital signs and routines could be remotely tracked from a neighborhood nursing station—enabling elders to live safely on their own for longer.
Now a high school senior, Ashmore plans to explore biomedical engineering, neuroscience, and psychology in college. She also hopes to continue mentoring younger girls interested in careers in science, a job she’s had the last two summers. "There is still a gender divide, particularly in computer science," she says. "I’d like to see that change."
Intel International Science and Engineering Fair
A program of Society for Science and the Public, Intel ISEF is the world’s largest pre-college science competition with over USD 4 million in awards.
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