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November 13, 2020

A wearable sensor to help ALS patients communicate

Researchers have designed a skin-like device that can measure small facial movements in patients who have lost the ability to speak. Using this approach, patients could communicate a variety of sentiments using small movements that are analyzed by a handheld processing unit. The work was led by researchers at MIT's Conformable Decoders group, with support from the U.S. National Science Foundation.

Credit: National Science Foundation/Karson Productions

Face time.

I'm Bob Karson with the Discovery Files, new advances in science and engineering -- from the U.S. National Science Foundation.

ALS, a neuromuscular disease, slowly takes away muscle control and eventually, often the ability to speak.

(Sound effect: Stephen Hawking:) "Technology has transformed the outlook for the disabled." The familiar synthesized voice of the late Stephen Hawking was possible through a complex system that detected twitches of his cheek to move a cursor and spell words. While effective, the system Hawking used is bulky, expensive and time-consuming.

For researchers at MIT, a chance meeting with the physicist became inspiration to create a face-based, more natural communication system for ALS patients.

A thin, flexible patch worn on the cheek, with sensors that detect subtle movements of the skin and send that info to a handheld processor, where it's analyzed. The researchers trained their algorithm to distinguish between a smile, open mouth, and pursed lips. When tested with two ALS patients, it was spot-on about three quarters of the time.

By using different combinations of small, detectable movements, a whole library of messages could be created with the help of this portable, inexpensive, unobtrusive patch. Helping ALS patients express themselves and bringing a loved one back into the conversation.

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