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New Autism Center to Conduct Brainwave Study

California Lutheran University’s new Autism and Communication Center in Thousand Oaks just received its first major research grant, which will fund a study that could change the way nonverbal people speak. Edlyn Peña, co-director of the center, which opened in September, received $67,000 for the one-year grant from the Disability Communications Fund. The money will be used to assess if a new brain-computer interface called Think to Speak could offer nonverbal people who also have limited mobility a hands-free way to communicate. Think to Speak combines :prose, a mobile communication app developed by Santa Barbara-based Smartstones Inc., with a headset that detects electrical activity in the brain. The platform records brainwave patterns that prompt pre-programmed words and phrases spoken through an iPad or iPhone. The headset to be used in the study is made by San Francisco’s Emotiv Systems Inc. but the app can be paired with most electroencephalogram headsets, said Smartstones Chief Executive Andreas Forsland. The money for the independent study will be used to buy equipment, pay participants and present findings at two conferences. Currently, Peña, along with center co-director Beth Brennan, Agoura Hills speech-language pathologist Ali Steers and Kirsten Brown from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, are looking to recruit 15 participants over 18 years of age to test the system. The study will show participants an object, record the brainwave activity related to that object and then assign that activity to a certain word or phrase. After establishing a small lexicon, the participants will be asked to answer simple questions to test the viability of the platform. “To be clear, we are not testing cognition or intelligence,” Peña said. “We are asking very simple, straightforward questions, and our goal is to really know if the communication itself is reliable.” The technology is still in its infancy but its future applications could be game-changing for people with communication needs. Peña said brain-computer interfaces are primarily tested in clinics and research studies but could become commercially available once the glitches are worked out. She said one of the major hurdles of the system is the issue with electroencephalogram headsets tending to pick up other motions and noises, interfering with the brain activity recording. “I hope that this technology will help people with autism in the future to enhance their communication, and maybe in 10 to 15 years, you’ll see students in classrooms using brain-computer interfaces to participate in class,” Peña added. Emergency Upgrade Simi Valley Hospital has unveiled its new $41 million Thakkar Family Emergency Pavilion. The facility adds 5,500 square feet to the emergency department, as well as eight additional patient rooms, a two-bay triage area, a bereavement room for families and a paramedic radio room. “Thakkar Family Pavilion really exemplifies the commitment we are making to provide environments for our patients that are conducive to healing and to be a state-of-the-art organization right here in your community,” hospital Chief Executive Jennifer Swenson said. The space was built in phases as to not disrupt workflow and was designed to enhance the patient experience. In the pavilion, the hospital incorporated private patient rooms for added comfort and a centralized nursing station for easy access. Drs. Irma Harriman Thakkar and Ushakant “Kant Tucker” Thakkar, local doctors who started Kidney Centers Inc. with locations throughout the greater Conejo Valley, donated more than $1 million to the project. In total, more than $4 million was raised with the rest funded through the hospital’s foundation, Swenson said. Employees and volunteers directly donated $550,000, and the new waiting room was dedicated to them, as a result. The need for an expanded emergency room is greater than ever as the hospital has seen a year-over-year increase in emergency room patients, partially due to people without primary care physicians utilizing the emergency room for non-emergency services, Swenson said. “In 1996, we served approximately 19,000 patients in our emergency department,” Dr. Alfred Yu, the medical director of the hospital’s emergency department, said in a statement. “We’re now seeing over 35,000 patients a year. Until this new facility became available, we were handling that significant increase in volume without an increase in space. Thanks to the flexibility of our physicians and staff, we made it work, but having this additional space will be much better for everyone involved.” Simi Valley Hospital is part of Roseville nonprofit health system Adventist Health, along with sister hospital Glendale Adventist Medical Center. Staff Reporter Stephanie Henkel can be reached at (818) 316-3130 or shenkel@sfvbj.com.

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