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Cyber-Eye Helps Comatose Patients
June 3, 2014   
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People in a coma or vegetative state may be aware, with their sense of hearing and smell intact, and capable of feeling pain or cold. But they are often unable to let their family or doctors know what they are experiencing. This is where the Cyber-eye steps in.

The Cyber-eye is an invention developed by researchers from the Gdańsk University of Technology in northern Poland. It comprises several devices that make it possible to examine the patient’s brain activity and make contact with them, even if they are completely paralyzed. With the Cyber-eye, a person who does not move, cannot speak and does not respond to other stimuli can let their family know that he or she is aware of what’s happening around them.

One of the system’s components is a device that traces the patient’s eye movements. In this way, the patient can choose letters or other symbols, for example, on a screen just by directing their sight to them.

How is a computer capable of reading the intentions of a person looking at the screen? The Gdańsk researchers placed a camera under a monitor and pointed it at the user’s face. In the four corners of the monitor, four illuminators are installed that emit infrared light directed at the patient’s eyes.

“As a result, there are four points on the pupil,” says Prof. Andrzej Czyżewski, the chief inventor and head of the Multimedia Systems Department at the Gdańsk University of Technology Faculty of Electronics, Telecommunications and Informatics. “When the patient looks straight at the screen, these are arranged in a rectangle. When the patient looks to one side or another, this rectangle changes shape to form polygons. These, in turn, are translated algorithmically into the movements of the cursor on the screen.” In this way, the user can control the cursor solely by moving his or her eyes. Another part of the system is a module for analyzing the electrical activity of the brain. It is based on the processing, analysis and interpretation of EEG waves registered by electrodes placed on the patient’s head. As a result, it becomes possible to detect the patient’s mood and what emotions they are feeling. It is even possible to communicate with them because the system can detect that the patient is thinking about moving a hand or foot, for example. This makes it possible to develop a language—a set of signals—with which the patient will be able to tell their family or doctors about their needs.

The system allows the user to compose messages with their eyes. A letter or a pictogram can be selected very easily, Czyżewski says—it’s enough to just look at it a while longer. “This will give new opportunities to people woken up from a coma but still trapped in their own bodies, paralyzed—people who until now could only communicate with the outside world by blinking their eyes,” says Czyżewski.

“The therapist tells the patient to move their right hand. Of course, they cannot move it because they are paralyzed, but it is possible to find out if they indeed want to move their hand. This means that the patient can hear, understands commands and is willing to cooperate,” says Czyżewski.

How can the level of a patient’s awareness be evaluated? To begin with, a few simple tests are carried out to make sure that the patient understands verbal commands. For example, two cups are shown to them: a green one and a red one, and the patient is asked to identify the red cup with their eyes. If they can do that, it becomes clear that the patient can hear and distinguish shapes and colors. In the next stage, the range of tasks for the patient is gradually expanded, allowing a comprehensive assessment of the patient’s condition.

So far, the Cyber-eye has helped dozens of disabled people and comatose patients, the researchers say. There are also comatose patients who have woken up and remember working with the Cyber-eye when they were still in a coma.

The researchers say they are working to enable patients to control a computer in the same way as able-bodied people do. Focusing their eyes on an icon, a patient will be able to open programs, surf the internet, send emails, and turn on the light or heating. Using Google Street View, they will even be able to take virtual tours in cyberspace, the researchers say. All this will be possible thanks to a series of pictogram phrases and sentences that the patient can use.

The Cyber-eye system is currently in use in five healthcare facilities in Poland. In March 2013, in a Polish public television audience poll, it was voted “Polish Invention of the Year 2013.” Moreover, the inventors—Prof. Andrzej Czyżewski; Bartosz Kunka, Ph.D.; Agnieszka Kwiatkowska; Rafał Rybacki; Prof. Bożena Kostek; Adam Kupryjanow, Ph.D.; and Piotr Odya, Ph.D., from the Multimedia Systems Department at the Gdańsk University of Technology Faculty of Electronics, Telecommunications and Informatics—won a gold medal at the Brussels Innova exhibition in Brussels, Belgium.

Tomasz Rybicki and Olga Majewska
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