Do you like unicorns? If the answer is yes, you have to read the story about the designer Anouk Wipprecht and her Agent Unicorn, a device that will change in better the life of a lot of children. Anouk is a Dutch Hi-Tech Fashion Designer and Innovator: she combines fashion with engineering, science, and interactive user-experience technologies. For some time, the designer has been working on devices that act as monitors of physiological parameters, such as heart rate, and communicate the information collected to the wearer.
In 2016 Anouk decided to apply her technologies for therapeutic purpose. So, the designer created a headset with a projecting horn that can help children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and their caregivers better understand what environmental cues are associated with symptomatic problems. In April 2019 the technology, named Agent Unicorn, became commercially available to makers interested in brain-computer interfaces (BCIs).
Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is one of the most common mental disorders affecting children. Symptoms of the disorder include inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity.
In the United States, approximately 8.4% of children have ADHD and, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, in some children, symptoms of the disorder begin as early as 3 years of age. Actually, ADHD is usually treated with stimulants, such as Adderall, that can boost concentration and focus while reducing hyperactive and impulsive behaviors. But, even if farm therapy can reduce symptoms, it doesn’t help in understanding why a child with ADHD is more prone to react to certain stimuli, or how their symptoms might be treated in a way that reduces reliance on drugs.
An innovative design
To create Agent Unicorn, Anouk decided not to use any EEG commercial device already available, because many of them struggled to distinguish between electrical activity caused by brain waves and activity caused by muscle contractions. So, she decided to collaborate with Christoph Guger, founder and co-CEO of G.tec, a medical engineering company, to create an innovative design for her device.
The result was precisely Agent Unicorn, a miniature EEG board that connects to eight electrodes without the need to apply the conductive gel. The device is based on the analysis of the P300 event-related brain potential signal, a waveform that occurs a few hundred milliseconds after an external stimulus. Children with ADHD show a delayed and weaker signal, compared to healthy ones.
For other uses of the P300 event-related brain potential signal, read also: Brain fingerprinting: a lie detection technique
Agent Unicorn also contains an 8-megapixel camera that records video during states of heightened P300 activity and LEDs that flash during P300 events. The EEG board is connected to a Raspberry Pi Zero W single-board computer, that receives continuously video feed from the horn camera. When the device detects a P300 wave, Pi wirelessly sends a video clip incorporating the 3 seconds before the event and the 5 seconds after to a laptop computer in order to identify what has captured the wearer’s attention. This can facilitate the work of a therapist, highlighting the moments when a child becomes particularly attentive. This kind of approach may suggest starting points for non-pharmaceutical therapeutic measures.
One of the most interesting advantages of the device is that it allows the measurement of brain activity in everyday situations instead of a clinical contest. In this way, the headpiece should help children to have a better understanding of their individual distractions.
Moreover, we can use this playful device to identify subconscious brain activity. For example, it could help to understand how we react to various colors or how we respond if we listen to our names.
G.tec has recently released a US $1,100 version with the Unicorn EEG only for scientists, makers, and artists, in the meantime clinical studies are in progress to test the value of using the device for the treatment of children with ADHD.