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New technology to help children with Autism

Concepts & Objectives

The assessment of the status of the child’s disorder and the therapeutic interventions are executed typically in a clinical setting. Often this approach implies a reduced effectiveness mainly in consideration of:

  1. The “artificial” context of the lab environment generating artifacts and adding systematic and non-systematic bias to the findings and therefore producing results that do not reflect behaviors in real life;
  2. The lack of “intensiveness” of the therapeutic intervention (just few hours during the week) limiting its beneficial effects, as demonstrated in some recent studies[5];
  3. The poor “individualization” of the intervention protocol, due to a lack of the a priori knowledge of which treatment method will be most effective for a specific child.

The MICHELANGELO Project aims at overcoming these three problems, by moving as much as possible the assessment and the therapeutic interventions from a clinical setting to a more “natural” home environment and by using non-obtrusive or minimally invasive techniques.

As an example, quantitative EEG (QEEG)[6] analysis has proved its capability of identifying dysfunction in various regions of brains of autistic individuals but the invasiveness of the currently used systems induces both systematic and non-systematic biases to the experimental outcome eluding the actual nature of the brainwave behaviour and connectivity.

MICHELANGELO intends to minimise these biases and modulation effects by making the recording system pervasive in nature so that the patients becomes “unaware” of its presence; it will allow the patients to move freely in their “own” environment while at the same time offering them naturally occurring stimuli and continuously monitoring their EEG activities.

Similarly some studies[7] have reported a change of parameters such as heart rate, systolic and diastolic pressure, pulse rate, sweat index, body temperature, fingertip temperature, electrodermal activity (EDA) as an effect of the rehabilitation program of patients with brain injury. In the MICHELANGELO approach a set of wearable and non-invasive sensors will allow to monitor these parameters.

The MICHELANGELO approach – even if intensive - will be extremely cost effective as a result of the minimal human involvement requirement.

Another important objective of the MICHELANGELO Project is to open new opportunities in the field of “personalized autism research and treatment”. Technology could avoid “to restrict research to the old paradigm of laboratory observations that use snapshot measurement technology and average the findings across a group”; technology can allows “to address the rich understanding of individuals”. Every child is “unique” with “unique” problem. So the intervention needs to be tailored according to that.

Although researchers agree on the fact that it is necessary to establish an individualizing treatment for each child, there are still a lot of open questions to address:

  1. Very little is known about how to individualize treatment protocols and there have been very few studies in which different technologies have been validated and compared;
  2. There is a little knowledge on how to determine a priori which intervention is more likely to benefit individual children.

The MICHELANGELO Project aims to increase the knowledge in these fields by comparing the effect of different methods.

[5] B. Remington, R.P. Hastings, H. Kovshoff, F. degli Espinosa, E. Jahr, T. Brown, P. Alsford, M. Lemaic and N. Ward: “Early intensive behavioral intervention: outcomes for children with autism and their parents after two years” – American Journal on Mental Retardation – vol. 112, number 6:418-438; November 2007.
[6] Electroencephalogram (EEG) measures brain waves; it shows the variations in electrical potentials at a number of scalp sites. Inside the brain neurons produce their own electrical fields; it is thought that an unhealthy brain will have large changes in the electrical potential compared to the potentials produced by a healthy brain. A brain map (quantitative QEEG) could be provided.
[7] R.E. Laibow, A.N. Stubblebine, H. Sandground, M. Bounias: “EEG NeuroBioFeedback Treatment of Patients with Brain Injury – Part 3: Cardiac Parameters and Finger Temperature Changes Associated with Rehabilitation”, 2002; presented at the 2001 Society for Neuronal Regulation, 9th Annual Conference, Monterey, California, USA.

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The Michelangelo Project is co-funded from the European Union's Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013) under grant agreement n° #288241