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ETSU researcher helping find way for ALS patients to communicate

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(August 18, 2014)  ̶ As Americans continue to take the ice bucket challenge to support awareness of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), ETSU faculty member Dr. Eric Sellers is moving forward with his research to help patients diagnosed with this condition, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, be able to communicate. Sellers is an associate professor in the Department of Psychology and director of the Brain-Computer Interface (BCI) Laboratory.

Patients in his studies are experiencing locked-in syndrome – which occurs during advanced stages of the disease when complete paralysis takes over the entire body, including the muscles that control simple actions, such as eyebrow movement, and even critical ones used for breathing – and have little or no ability to communicate with the outside world.  A BCI device can record brain activity using small sensors placed on the scalp, and Sellers is using a BCI to detect a common brain response called the P300, which is a positive spike in the brainwaves that occurs about 300 milliseconds after the brain has detected a meaningful stimulus.

Sellers is part of a national research team looking at how the P300 can be used as a “virtual finger” for a typing device.  Patients in the study are instructed to pay attention to a specific “key” in a grid that represents the keys of a computer keyboard.  The BCI randomly flashes letters and numbers at a rapid rate, and the person pays attention to the key they want to select.  When that item flashes, a P300 occurs, and a computer screen displays the words and sentences the patients are trying to communicate.

Sellers is currently working to improve BCI speed and accuracy and enhance overall performance and usability of the BCI.

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