The CNT Hackathon gives students hands-on experience developing neurotechnology prototypes

Wayne Gillam

Students who participate in the CNT Hackathon receive a unique opportunity to augment their coursework by working closely with peers to design and develop neurotechnology prototypes aimed at addressing real-world clinical issues.

On Feb. 21, 2020, a mix of 15 undergraduate and graduate students from across the country assembled at the Center for Neurotechnology (CNT) to participate in the fourth annual CNT Hackathon. This year, students were mostly from the University of Washington (UW) and other West Coast institutions such as San Diego State University and Whatcom Community College. The students were selected from a nationwide pool of applicants to participate in this student-organized event. The CNT Hackathon challenges its participants to turn neural engineering concepts into neurotechnology prototypes that address clinical issues such as stroke, spinal cord injury and other neurological disorders, all within a fast-paced, 36-hour time period.

“The CNT Hackathon gets done in three days what at a normal pacing takes three months or more,” said Courtnie Paschall, CNT Hackathon organizer and graduate student in bioengineering at the UW. “I think the ability to give students a competitive, focused environment, and to allow the natural talents, abilities and creativity of the team to come together is really inspiring for the individuals who participate.”

Paschall and her co-organizer, Zachary Ip, also a bioengineering graduate student at the UW, focused carefully on diversification and spreading talents and skills equally among the student teams. As a result, hackathon participants worked very independently, requiring little oversight.

“This year, we have a lot of entrepreneurial participants, applicants who have already launched biotechnology products or companies or have been affiliated in that research to market transition,” Paschall said. “I think that’s exciting and useful, because it bridges what gets done at the CNT Hackathon to projects that might get to continue forward [to commercialization].”

Using existing technology in new ways

Students were provided with project guidelines, basic hardware such as Arduino kits, OpenBCI microprocessors and Muse headsets, as well as criteria by which their prototypes would be judged. Finished projects needed to demonstrate innovation, technological merit, align with CNT mission and goals, take into account ethical concerns, and be presented in front of an audience and a panel of judges. Members of the winning team each received a $50 Amazon gift card and a 3D-printed trophy.

Students appeared to relish the challenge, building upon already-existing technology and hardware in new and innovative ways. This year’s winning team, Sign2Speech, used a CyberGlove as the basis for their prototype, which converted sign language into speech. Their project was designed to assist people with aphasia, a common manifestation of stroke.

“The real heart of this project is the machine-learning,” said Nikolas Ioannou, Sign2Speech team member and a 17-year old UW freshman who is a Robinson Center student. “What we did is train the machine-learning model to take in the state of the glove and convert that into a letter [which is then converted to speech by a Google text-to-speech API].”

Other projects demonstrated by student teams were:

Eggy: A tool to monitor stomach activity using electrogastrogram – This unique, stomach-monitoring device addresses a common, but little-known issue. 55.2% of stroke survivors suffer from constipation and 40% experience 30 days of incontinence after stroke due to loss of control of motor neurons in the stomach. This device provides valuable feedback for the user to help them make adjustments in diet and sleep that will improve their overall health.

Kinect-based physical therapy games for children with cerebral palsy – This device gamifies physical therapy exercises for children with cerebral palsy, the leading cause of childhood physical disabilities. 49% of children with cerebral palsy have severe motor impairment. The team created a set of video games (constellation-building, asteroid-clearing) that seeks to strengthen neural pathways through repetition of physical movements. The goal is to increase patient mobility and autonomy in a way that is fun and engaging for children.

Neuropaint uses a Muse headset to send electromyogram (EMG) and electroencephalogram (EEG) signals to a neural network and then translates this data into an image. The end result is a multi-faceted form of artistic expression for people with motor impairments.

Point Blink is an assistive device for people with spinal cord injury, detecting eye blinks and using them to move a cursor onscreen. Point Blink could be used to power wheelchairs and turn items on and off such as lights, heat, television and other smart devices.

Moving students and their ideas toward the real world

In many ways, the CNT Hackathon functions like a student practicum, augmenting academic coursework and showing students how to be flexible and adaptable under pressure. This immersive and engaging process can reveal a student’s strengths to themselves and build their confidence in a fun and enjoyable way.

“Reese and I had a good time just in the brainstorming of our idea,” said Tyler Petrie, a UW undergraduate student in electrical and computer engineering, who along with her teammate Reese Montag, from computer science and engineering, developed the Kinect-based physical therapy. “We identified my strengths and his strengths, what we care about as engineers and how our project’s solution maps to CNT goals and the needs of different groups of people.”

Some of the students are even planning to take their ideas beyond the CNT Hackathon.

“I really would like to potentially commercialize Sign2Speech as a tool for people with aphasia, or just anyone who uses sign language to communicate with people who don’t understand sign language,” Ioannou said.

And for those students, Paschall has some good news.

“What’s beautiful is that there are many resources on the UW campus to help support students who want to continue to develop their ideas, like UW CoMotion, for example,” Paschall said. “and we’ll do whatever we can here at the CNT to help connect students to resources for this kind of technology transfer.”

For more information about the CNT Hackathon contact CNT Executive and Education Director Eric Chudler or CNT Hackathon Student Organizer Courtnie Paschall.