Brain computer interface technology helps Glenrose pediatric patients

July 18, 2022

EDMONTON — Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital pediatric patients with restricted communication and physical control are using an emerging and promising technology to support their independence to make art and play.

Brain computer interface (BCI) is a direct communication pathway between the brain's electrical activity and an external device. Users control BCIs by thinking about specific things, which translate to a command. Through practice, the BCI learns the specific patterns of one’s brain to perform a task, such as controlling music or playing a game.

Thanks to BCI, Olivia Terry, 13, has been able to express her artistic side.

After losing the ability to speak and walk, Olivia was diagnosed with Rett Syndrome at four years of age. The rare genetic neurological and developmental disorder affects the way the brain develops, causing a progressive loss of motor skills and speech.

At the Glenrose, Olivia wears an external headset that senses her brain’s electrical activity, which is analyzed and interpreted by a computer interface to control a Bluetooth enabled robot. After indicating a colour of paint she wishes to use, a therapist applies the paint to a motorized device, which Olivia controls through neuro feedback, to create unique and one-of-a-kind paintings.

“Olivia is unable to communicate verbally or through the use of her hands,” explains Stephen Terry, Olivia’s father. “When she is using BCI, she has control of her actions and can show us what she is capable of. It is an amazing program that gives her the opportunity to showcase her abilities.”

BCI has been around for decades, but it is an emerging research field for pediatrics. The Glenrose BCI program works in partnership with the Alberta Children’s Hospital in Calgary, and the Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital in Toronto. Together, the programs are highlighting how BCI has tremendous potential to meaningfully impact pediatric patients with significant physical challenges.

“Patients can drive a wheelchair with BCI, play with remote controlled cars, or make changes to their environment by turning on lights or music,” explains Corinne Tuck, occupational therapist and clinical practice lead for assistive technology, Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital.

“This technology is showing us just how smart these kids are. The applications we are using here is just the tip of the iceberg; BCI is one type of neuroadaptive technology whose potential we are only beginning to understand.”

Donors to the Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital Foundation have contributed $385,000 towards BCI at the site, offering pediatric patients new possibilities and new ways to interact with their environments. Olivia has gifted one of her pieces of artwork to the Glenrose Foundation, which will be used to help raise funds for BCI research.

“We're proud to fund BCI and other innovative healthcare technologies that change the lives of Glenrose patients, and we cannot wait to see the realized potential of these advancements,” says Mark Korthuis, President and CEO, Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital Foundation.

In addition to BCI sessions, patients like Olivia receive home BCI kits with commercial headsets, which allow patients to practice their skills at home while playing with robots, video games or other customized applications developed by the Glenrose team.

Access to BCI home kits, which are funded by the Glenrose Foundation, allow the healthcare team to provide virtual appointments and reach patients and families that are geographically challenged to attend in-person appointments.

Olivia’s parents know she loves having access to the technology from seeing the smile on her face throughout her BCI appointments.

“She’s looking forward to borrowing some of the technology over the summer to play with neighbours, her friends, and her sister,” says Stephen. “It’s wonderful to see her engaged in age-appropriate activities and be able to express herself.”

The Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital Foundation raises funds that fuel innovation, research and technology to enhance the exceptional patient care at the Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital.

Alberta Health Services is the provincial health authority responsible for planning and delivering health supports and services for more than four million adults and children living in Alberta. Its mission is to provide a patient-focused, quality health system that is accessible and sustainable for all Albertans.