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Student Research for ALS Patients

User-Friendly Prototype Helps People Communicate Online
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Computer engineering major Krystle Ilisastigui hopes her efforts to help develop a high-tech communication device will improve the quality of life for those with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS.

Ilisastigui and several of her classmates are developing an electronic communication system to enable ALS patients to access the Internet and communicate via email, text document, chat or Skype using thoughts, facial expressions and head movements, said Kiran George, associate professor of computer engineering.

George and his students have worked on the prototype since February — supported by a $100,000 grant from the Oakland-based Disability Communications Fund — and partnered with the ALS Association Orange County Chapter to fine-tune the technology and design.

This summer, the communication device was tested with the help of patients at the chapter’s Tustin office.

“I have 100 percent faith in you,” said Cal State Fullerton alumnus Dean Zarkos, diagnosed with ALS in 2011, as students placed a wireless headset on him.

With the device, patients like Zarkos — who uses a motorized wheelchair and is unable to move his hands, arms or legs — can communicate online with head tilts and facial expressions.

“What they are doing is phenomenal: it’s cutting-edge technology. Anything that can help patients like myself is a tremendous asset for us,” said Zarkos ’78 (B.A. political science) of Seal Beach, who holds an MBA and law degree and owns a property management business.

“I can see it opening up the world for people like me. You can do email — communicate with anybody. These students make me proud to be a Titan.”

ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, is a progressive neurodegenerative disease. An estimated 75 percent of ALS patients lose their ability to speak, along with use of their hands, said George. Speech problems are progressive, and most will experience a severe breakdown in their ability to communicate with others, he added.

“Patients face tremendous barriers that make electronic communication a challenge. This inability to communicate is equally frustrating and emotionally devastating,” George added. “But this device will help them to engage in electronic communication and allow them to stay connected to friends and family.”

What is most appealing about the technology is that the device is user-friendly, requires minimal training and is low cost, observed Jared Mullins ’04 (B.A. political science), executive director of the ALS Orange County Chapter.

The wireless communication system utilizes commercially off-the-shelf components to minimize design time and cost, George explained. The goal is to keep the device’s cost under $150.

While the project allows students to apply what they learn in class and put it to practical use, it also is an eye-opening experience in seeing how their work could help ALS patients regain control of simple tasks.

“It’s been challenging and a great learning experience for us to work directly with the patients,” said graduate student David Diaz. “It’s real hands-on — something you are not going to get in the classroom.”

Fellow graduate student Aaron Castillo added that one of the biggest challenges has been to personalize the device to meet patients’ needs as the disease progresses.

“We’re going to give this project everything we have; we just want to help,” Castillo said.

George and his students also are working on other brain-controlled systems for ALS patients, in which thoughts and expressions can be used to control a robotic arm and electric wheelchair.

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