Minds Over Matter
Students apply the principles of "biopotential" in a quest to achieve human potential

When it comes to communicating, Luke Samuelson uses all he's got. He says yes by nodding and blinking, with a smile lighting up his round blue eyes. He says no by puckering up his face as if he just ate something sour. If he's really upset, he sticks out his tongue. But everyone who works with him knows there are so many things this 21-year-old young man with cerebral palsy would say, if only he could get his own muscles to do his bidding.

He might talk about the stories he hears on the news every day, the NASCAR races he loves to watch, the college course on human development he's been taking. Surely, he'd crack a few jokes. He might gripe about the excruciatingly slow "pick and choose" computer program he formerly used to communicate, pressing his head against a switch to select a row of letters on a computer screen, passing over each letter in the row until he came to the right one, and returning to the top to select another row. The process was so exhausting that he could produce only a handful of letters, which his caregivers would use as clues to what was bothering him or what he wanted to say in an e-mail to a friend, perhaps a certain young lady. Lately, difficulties with moving his neck have prevented him from using the computer at all.

TECHNICAL CHALLENGE: UNH students, from left, Tibbany Black, Matthew Minuti and Christopher Rappa work with Luke Samuelson on the technology that could help him communicate through a computer. Photo by Perry Smith, UNH Photographic Services.

Ever since he watched a man in Maine use a finger switch to control a computer with Morse code, it has been Samuelson's dream to do the same-a dream that brought him to UNH in search of technical assistance last fall and then brought a team of three students and a professor together to help him. Morse code could provide a communication lifeline for Samuelson, a way to manipulate a computer and "speak" with more ease. Ultimately, it could also allow him to control lights and doors and other things in his environment. The goal, in the words of computer engineering senior Chris Rappa '08, is no less than this: "to provide Lucas Samuelson with an interface to the world."

Rappa and Matthew Minuti '09, a junior in electrical engineering, volunteered last fall to work with Samuelson in a year-long independent study project under the direction of John LaCourse, chair of the electrical and computer engineering department and an experienced biomedical engineering researcher. During the year, the two students developed a great deal of empathy for Samuelson. They tried the pick-and-choose computer system and found it nearly impossible to use—even with full control of their hands. They came to recognize Samuelson's intelligence and his longing to further his education, first evidenced when he spelled out C-O-L-L-E-G-E at the age of 14. He's already made it through high school and two community college courses by using his gaze to choose the correct answer in multiple choice tests. His auditory comprehension is excellent. He is obviously engaged in team meetings or in the classroom, and when someone makes a humorous remark, his laughter often reveals that he's the first to get the joke.

For many people with cerebral palsy, physical disabilities stem from problems with the motor cortex, the part of the brain that controls voluntary movement. The effect is one of being trapped in one's own body, and over time the inability to move-or release-certain muscles can lead to further weakening.

At the start, the technological steps required to achieve Samuelson's goal had seemed relatively straightforward to Rappa and Minuti. But as is so often the case in biomedical engineering, "the human aspect is critical," notes LaCourse. The team considered 10 different switching systems and several places where Samuelson seemed to have the strength to manipulate a switch-his elbows, his index finger, his head, and perhaps easiest of all, his eyes. He had a strong preference for the finger switch, however, and everyone understood why he ruled out his eyes. "He wants to go off to college and meet young ladies," says LaCourse. "He doesn't want electrodes stuck on his face."

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