Toronto team brings mind reading to a whole new level

Scientists in Toronto have developed a system that may give people with neural disabilities a better way to communicate.

A team of research students from the University of Toronto is experimenting with a system that decodes brain activity and reveals a person’s preference when thinking about something.

Dr. Tom Chau, professor and coordinator of clinical engineering at the U of T is supervising the team of students involved in the research. In order for his team to measure brain activity, subjects have to wear a plastic visor hooked up to fiber optic cables that shine infrared light. Information is then obtained by measuring oxygen levels in the brain.

“When tissue is active – likewise the brain – it requires oxygen,” Chau said. “This increases blood flow to the area.

“Then we shine infrared light into the brain. Some (light) is absorbed, and the rest is reflected (to the visor). If more light is absorbed, then that means the tissue is active.”

One of the students studying the technology is Stephanie Liddle, a Masters student of clinical engineering at U of T.  She says in order for the system to work, subjects must make decisions based on a limited number of choices.

“For example, I show them (subjects) three pictures,” Liddle said, “I then tell them to start singing in their head…when they want something.”

The pictures she shows to the subjects are of various sports, to people eating food or using computers. But the kind of scenario given is based on the person’s age and mental ability.

“Sometime they (subjects) select letters from the alphabet,” she said. “But you wouldn’t give a kid in kindergarten a spelling task – it’s a person by person basis.”

The unique system that Chau and his students are working has been running for about three years. He thinks there is a lot of potential for the project.

“There’s nothing like it in Canada,” he said. “About 400,000 people in Canada, the U.S. and the U.K. completely have no means of communication. We are looking at four million severely disabled people (from all three countries) who could benefit in some way from this kind of technology.”

Currently, people are finding out about the project through posters and emails. Chau says that he hasn’t gotten specific interest shown from any societies, but mainly from individual families.

“We get calls from families with children (with disabilities) wondering if they qualify as candidates,” Chau said. “Interest is growing though. Clinicians are also aware of the program and they are referring patients to us.”

Chau says there are many that could benefit from the program, including people with cerebral palsy, neural muscular diseases, people who’ve had brain tumors removed or stroke victims.

Filed by Brad Pritchard