If you have been thinking about a challenge that might be tackled with neurotechnology, this summer provides an opportunity to get some help from students and recent grads who are looking for real-world problems to solve.
Researchers, industry representatives, health practitioners, and patient advocates are invited to be "problem providers" for NeurAlbertaTech's second annual natHACKS event, a 64-hour hackathon focused on the brain-computer interface, which is taking place from July 29 to Aug. 1 in Edmonton, Calgary, and Lethbridge.
The event is powered by sponsors such as Alberta Innovates and the National Research Council of Canada, among others. It offers teams a chance to hack out a solution on one of four tracks: rehabilitation, research, or recreation, plus a "junior" track for first-timers. The senior streams offer prize money of $2,000 for first place and $1,000 for second, and the junior track offers $1,000 to the winner. Winners will also be eligible for in-kind support from startup service providers.
Since its inaugural and virtual debut in 2021, natHACKS has grown. This year's iteration is aiming to provide "something for everyone," not only for students but also for the neurotech innovation space, said Eden Redman, executive director of NeurAlbertaTech.
"If you're a clinician or researcher, we have opportunities to mentor or judge at the hackathon," he said. "Or if you have an idea or two on the back burner, you can provide those as challenges to get zero-cost R&D from a team of talented students and recent grads."
A pitch night for neurotech problems to solve will be held online on July 15. Contact NeurAlbertaTech if you have a problem to pitch.
The application deadline for hackathon participants is July 8 for those who want access to hardware. The absolute deadline to register is July 15.
At the heart of neurotechnology is BCI, or brain-computer interface. Translating a person's brain activity into external responses has numerous applications, such as enabling recovery from a stroke or gathering full-body, real-time data from a patient or research subject.
The three tracks at natHACKS map onto the most common use cases for BCI. On the research front, it can involve "creating tools for more efficiently conducting neuroscience research" with both human and non-human brains, Redman said.
On the rehabilitation front, it can help answer questions such as "How can we use real-time brain activity to better help someone recover from injury?" Or if a person has Alzheimer's disease, "how can we gauge the progression of their illness?"
One of the projects emerging from NeurAlbertaTech is Koalacademy, a language learning platform that uses brain waves as an input. It started with a question: "How do we use brain activity to increase the efficiency of someone learning Mandarin from English?" It has now spun off into a research project in the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine in the department of communication sciences and disorders, said Redman, who leads the core development team.
"You get in an English word with a Mandarin character. And you look at the brain's response. And then you're able to then present that same information later on and gauge whether that initial brain response indicates learning or not learning."
BCI also has its applications in gaming and other forms of recreation. Redman has dabbled in that with RemBRAINdt, which lets you create art with your brain waves.
"It's more or less a fun side project," he said, noting nonetheless that market research funded by the Edmonton Regional Innovation Network yielded some promising results. "Lots of throwing stuff at the wall: What interests people? What sticks?"
A more serious area that is of interest to Redman is the treatment of severe psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia.
"A lot of what is going on now, at least on the treatment end, is whack-a-mole with pharmacological interventions. I see BCI as a potential route to a more individualized treatment path," he said.
A future he's not interested in building is one where some people have implanted computer enhancements.
"As you can probably predict, that's going to be going to the highest bidder," he said. "The upper echelons of society, the rich and ultra-rich, are going be getting those way before anyone else. And so I think that feeds into disparity between the different socioeconomic statuses. I'm kind of pushing for how do we make this equipment that's going to be widely available here and now."
With two undergraduate degrees from the University of Alberta under his belt, Redman is heading to Montreal in the fall to continue his neuroscience studies at McGill University. But he plans to remain with NeurAlbertaTech, and has found Edmonton a great place to get started in this field.
"I found the community is very welcoming," he said. "And nowadays, we're back up to fairly frequent in-person events, which is cool. Especially in the health innovator sector, there's quite a wide range of events popping up."