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'It's wonderful': Pediatric patients create art by controlling a computer with their minds

Olivia Terry shows off a painting she created with brain computer interface technology. Olivia Terry shows off a painting she created with brain computer interface technology.

Pediatric patients at the Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital with restricted communication and physical control now have access to technology to help them play and make art.

The technology, called a brain computer interface, or BCI, allows a direct communication pathway between the brain’s electrical activity and an external device.

Users control BCI by thinking about specific things, which are translated into a command.

With practice, BCI is able to learn the specific patterns of a person’s brain to perform a task like controlling music or playing a game.

The technology has been around for decades, but it’s an emerging field of research for pediatrics.

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

“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.”

Olivia Terry, 13, is one of the patients taking advantage of the technology.

Terry was diagnosed with Rett Syndrome when she was four years old. The neurological and developmental disorder causes a progressive loss of motor skills and speech.

She has lost the ability to speak and walk, but thanks to the technology she is able to create art.

She wears an external headset to detect her brain’s electrical activity. That information is analyzed and interpreted by a computer interface, which controls a Bluetooth enabled robot.

Olivia is able to use the device to indicate which paint colour she wants to use, which is then applied by a therapist to a motorized device. She then uses the device to create one-of-a-kind paintings.

Olivia Terry uses brain computer interface to paint.

“Just really proud of herself, and just really feeling accepted, that she is doing something that everybody else is doing,” said Olivia’s mother Elana Terry.

She will also have access to BCI home kits with commercial headsets that will allow her to practice her skills at home.

“I’m sure some of her friends will come over to see what it is she can do. It just allows everyone to get together and do a fun activity any teenager will want to do,” said Elana.

The take-home kits can also be used for virtual appointments to reach patients who are unable to attend physical appointments for geographical reasons.

The Glenrose BCI program currently works in partnership with the Alberta Children’s Hospital in Calgary, and the Holland Bloorview Rehabilitation Hospital in Toronto.

Donors have contributed $385,000 to fund the technology. 

With files from CTV News Edmonton's Nahreman Issa. Top Stories

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