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Your UCP: National October 13, 2003
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Assistive Technology

Biofeedback: The Cutting Edge of Assistive Technology

By Kari Jaehnert, Assistive Technology Specialist
PACER Simon Technology Center Minneapolis, MN

What is Biofeedback?
Biofeedback is said to be a method to achieve voluntary control of a physiological (bodily) function by means of self-monitoring, or re-training your body. Biofeedback training familiarizes one with the activity in the various body systems to lead to control and relieve pain, increase relaxation and develop more comfortable life patterns. It is believed that through awareness, people are able to gain control over (what used to be thought of as) involuntary actions or affects.

How does Biofeedback work?
Sensors are placed on various parts of the individual's body that monitor the individual. The sensors measure a variety of modalities including body temperature, muscle activity, heart rate, respiration, stomach function, and brain wave activity (electroencephalograph) or EEG. Electrical impulses, which indicate changes in the client's body are recorded and reflected ("fed back") on a computer monitor in the form of visual and/or auditory displays. Usually there is a task that the individual is asked to do such as moving an object, by thinking about it, through a maze—similar to the popular Pac-Man game. The figure is not directed because of the users motor activity such as using a joystick or manual control; instead, the figure moves whenever the client produces specific results such as changes in their thinking or brainwave patterns. The display and/or volume on the computer will change as the body activity changes; thus allowing the individual to make the cause and effect connection and ultimately learning to change behaviors.

How can Biofeedback help persons with disabilities?
Many biofeedback clinicians will offer "EEG Biofeedback," also called "Neurotherapy" or "Neurofeedback," to persons with disabilities such as ADD/ADHD, Autism, and Epilepsy. This form of biofeedback targets brain wave patterns and attempts to improve school or work performance, social relationships and self-esteem, as well as reduction in irritability, impulsivity, as well as hyperactive and oppositional behavior. Neurotherapy strives to give clients a heightened sense of control over their bodies, thoughts and feelings.

While biofeedback has been around for more than a decade, it is just recently becoming more popular among parents who have children with disabilities. Many parents of children with ADD/ADHD look for alternative ways to treat their children with attention problems. Medication such as Ritalin may be an effective treatment for attention deficit disorders, but many parents fear that over time it may lose its effectiveness or cause side effects. For some children biofeedback may take the place of Ritalin in increasing brain wave stimulation.

What role does Biofeedback play in the field of Assistive Technology?
Technological advances have allowed developers to consider using a form of biofeedback for an entirely new application: using biosignals to control computers. Signals from a person's body have potential to be an excellent source of control for assistive devices. Imagine using EEG brain signals to control things by merely thinking about them.

There are several computer programs that use biofeedback to assist persons with disabilities. For example, a person may use brainwave frequencies to control Infra-Red (IR) devices in their homes such as TV's, VCR's and radios or use the electrical wiring already installed in your house to send and receive signals to control lights, garage doors, security systems, etc. through a system called X-10 communication. This type of environmental control gives people with disabilities a great sense of independence and control over their surroundings. (You can view one such program here.)

Biofeedback can also be used to make music. A person can use slight muscle contractions or brainwaves to activate various musical instruments, change volume, pitch and rhythm with the use of special software.

A Cyberlink Interface (Brain Actuated Technologies, Inc.) can be used for hands-free control of computers. Specific facial and eye movement gestures can be discriminated by the Cyberlink software and mapped to separate mouse, keyboard, and program functions.

Although in their infancy, these technological advances will greatly contribute to the field of assistive technology for people with disabilities.

Source: Family Center on Technology and Disability

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