When Elisabeth Ashmore’s great uncle became severely paralyzed late in life, she saw the toll it took on him. For many quadriplegics, not only do they lose the ability to move their limbs, but also – because the paralysis affects the torso, and thus the ability to breathe and swallow – they lose their ability to speak.
And the numbers affected are not insignificant.
In the U.S. alone, nearly half of the 250,000 spinal cord injuries each year result in quadriplegia, according to data by the University of Alabama National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center. Other medical conditions such as cerebral palsy, which affects some 764,000 Americans, and stroke, which affects another 795,000 in the country each year, can result in a similar state of lock-in, where a person’s brain functions, but they are unable to communicate because they are unable to write, type or speak.
Recognizing the excruciating isolation caused by this condition, Ashmore was determined to help. And despite the fact that she was – as she puts it – “just a high school student,” she had the geek know-how to get it done.
When she was just a year old, her parents gave Ashmore her first computer. “As the story goes,” she says, “I could use the mouse by the time I was 18 months old.”
More skills followed, and by nine, she was competing in science fairs, where, she says, she was inspired to use her growing bank of technical skills to tackle real-world problems.
So, for her junior year science fair, the then-16-year-old created a computer-brain interface which may one day allow quadriplegics and others to control a computer using only the power of their minds, and thus interact with the world.
Ashmore’s prototype includes an electroencephalography (EEG) headset to chart electrical activity in the brain via 14 electrodes placed on the scalp. When users think about a specific action, neurons fire in a specific pattern. Ashmore used this information to create an algorithm that turns electrical signals into movements on a computer screen. By simply thinking about shifting a cursor right, left, up or down, or moving a mouse to select letters on a keyboard, users were able to make it happen.
In testing with multiple subjects, Ashmore’s device achieved an overall cursor-accuracy record of 88 percent and click-accuracy rate of 85 percent.
For this work, Ashmore earned a spot at the world’s largest science competition, the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (Intel ISEF), where, in 2013, she won a Second Award in Computer Science and a CERN Special Award, the latter of which included a week-long trip to Switzerland to learn about the European Organization for Nuclear Research.
“These experiences were so inspiring,” says Ashmore. “I met so many incredibly brilliant people who have all these great ideas. It really motivates me to keep pursuing science and discovery.”
In fact, Ashmore believes science fairs inspire many students to pursue careers in science, which in turn improves life for us all. “I think that what Intel does is promote divergent thinking and bring the possibility of discovery to communities where it might not have been fostered before,” she says. “And that gives our society as a whole a greater potential to turn out successful ideas and innovations.”
Since Intel ISEF, Ashmore has worked to broaden application of her technology from a single computer-based program to a home automation system, which could give handicapped individuals the ability not only to communicate with others, but also to control appliances in their home environment. This could be especially beneficial in the midst of the growing elder care crisis, since elders’ vital signs and routines could be remotely tracked from a neighborhood nursing station, enabling them to live safely on their own for longer. It could assist them in performing simple tasks, such as turning on and off lights and other devices via thought.
“Translating thought directly into action using only the power of one’s mind was once just science fiction,” notes Ashmore. “Today, however, it is a reality as a result of new technologies and lightning-fast computer processors.”
Now 18 and a high school senior in Plano, Texas, Ashmore plans to study biomedical engineering, neuroscience and psychology in college.
“I’m still exploring,” she explains. “But whatever I do, it will involve research. After eight years of science fairs, I love the process too much to give it up.”
After working as a tech mentor for girls the past two summers at a local university, she intends to continue her efforts to get more females to pursue careers in science.
“There is still a gender divide, particularly in computer science,” she says. ‘I’d like to see that change.”
To see the brain power at this year’s event in Los Angeles this May, follow Intel ISEF finalists here.