In The Media

From Books to Brains

By Rami Saab • Schulich Leader at McMaster University
Spring 2014

It’s an incredible moment really, when you finally have the opportunity to apply knowledge learned in the classroom to something meaningful, something that could make a difference. This summer I’ve been lucky enough to have this opportunity as part of a summer student placement at the Pediatric Rehabilitation Intelligent Systems Multidisciplinary Laboratory (PRISM) at Holland Bloorview Kid’s Rehabilitation Hospital. In this position I am helping develop communication access technologies for children with disabilities. Specifically my work is focused on brain-computer interfaces, or BCIs as they are commonly referred to in the field of neuroscience research.

BCIs are an exciting technology which show promise in allowing persons with severe disabilities to communicate using just their minds! And while it might sound like something out of science fiction (and without a doubt, the science and engineering behind it iw certainly “mind-boggling”) BCIs are proving to be a viable tool in empowering disabled persons with limited verbal and motor functions to communicate with the world around them.

Most BCI systems work by presenting stimulus to the person and then observing how the brain responds to this stimulus using small electrical sensors placed on the scalp. The most famous example is the BCI speller which enables one to spell entire sentences without speaking a word! By focusing on just one letter and flashing all the letters in a random order you get an "aha" moment when the letter you want is flashed. This "aha", produces a signal in the brain which lets the computer know which letter you want to spell (the picture attached is of me using such a system).

My work over the summer is concerned with improving the accuracy of BCI systems and expanding the technology to be more accessible to persons poorly served by existing systems. I am incredibly excited to be working at the PRISM Lab at Holland Bloorview and look forward to continue learning from the many scientists, researchers and staff, and hope to play even a small role in the exceptional work of the institution.