Wearable Tech to Help People with ALS

Wenxin Feng and Pison Technology are developing wearable tech that could help people with motor impairments control machines with thoughts


Wenxin Feng (GRS’19), left, and the team at Pison Technology are working on a device to help people with ALS. Photo by Gretchen Ertl (COM’95)

Raising an arm begins in the brain with the intention to lift the arm. For most people, that thought stimulates nerve cells, which transmit the electrical signals that tell muscles to contract and carry out the gesture. For people with neurodegenerative diseases like amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), the signal still gets sent, but is largely ignored. ALS attacks the nerve cells, weakening muscle movement and causing paralysis within three to five years. There is no treatment or cure. While limited technology exists to help people suffering from ALS communicate and otherwise engage with the world, at $17,000, it’s out of reach for most patients. Wenxin Feng is part of a team developing a wireless device to help people with ALS use tech like laptops, phones, and motorized wheelchairs effectively and affordably.

Feng (GRS’19), a computer science PhD student, is a researcher for Cambridge, Mass.-based Pison Technology. The start-up is developing a wearable computer controller, electrode sensor stickers that can be placed over any muscle and connected via Wi-Fi to a computer app with an onscreen keyboard and a mouse. The user can manipulate the app just by trying to flex their muscles. Although the action no longer controls movement for a person with ALS, flexing still sparks electrical signals in the muscles, which the device collects and translates into cursor and keyboard commands. The sensors also track these signals, which can then be watched by neurologists and caregivers to monitor the progression of the disease.

Feng became interested in helping people with ALS while working with Margrit Betke, a CAS professor of computer science, on Camera Mouse, free software that syncs with a computer’s built-in camera to give people with motor impairments the ability to control the mouse with simple head movements. (They’re also working on translating the technology to smartphones.) While conducting user studies for Camera Mouse, Feng was startled by ALS’ progression. The motor ability of a person with the disease is continuously devolving and no device on the market was designed to adapt with the user’s changing needs.

She became invested in using her expertise to give people with ALS “an opportunity to reveal their talents, and communicate with their friends and family,” she says; mentoring a class on assistive technology at MIT gave her a way to get involved. There, she met Pison founder Dexter Ang, an MIT student whose mother was diagnosed with ALS, spurring him to develop a device that patients could use throughout the course of their illness. While caring for his mother, Ang “discovered the available devices that could have helped her did not work,” he told the ALS Association blog. “Her hands weakened and she was unable to control a mouse. We went to the best therapists and rehab engineers all over the world and discovered that perhaps there was not a solution on the market.”

Pison’s wearable computer controller won the 2016 international ALS Assistive Technology Challenge, hosted by the ALS Association and Prize4Life, which came with a $100,000 award that the team will invest in research and development. Feng’s work involves designing the keyboard and mouse interface, which she will test with subjects who have ALS—in itself vital work, as few medical researchers have studied electromyography signals (a measure of muscles’ electrical activity) in this community.

Pison hopes the device, which will be tested in partnership with Johns Hopkins and Duke Universities, will be market ready by late 2018.