Daniel Ramandi had long thought about a way technology could be used to help people with motor challenges do therapy at home. The Brain-Tech 2021 Hackathon seemed like the perfect opportunity to try out an innovative idea.

The Brain-Tech Hackathon is a competition organized collaboratively by the UBC Dynamic Brain Circuits Cluster and the BC Brain Wellness Program. The competition is intended to further the Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health’s mission by fostering students and researchers to brainstorm and prototype novel applications to support brain health.

Ramandi—who is doing his PhD under the supervision of DMCBH researchers Drs. Lynn Raymond and Tim Murphy—teamed up with fellow trainees Abhijit Chinchani, Tony Fong, Pankaj Gupta, Hao Hu and Edward Yan to tackle the challenge.

The team decided to focus on Parkinson’s disease (PD), specifically speech impairment. Research shows that many people living with PD stop being able to produce loud sounds as their disease progresses. This often leads to feelings of confusion and frustration, as patients think others are ignoring or excluding them from conversation.

To address this, the team developed a game as a form of speech therapy. They created a modified version of the famous game Flappy Bird and called it LOUDy Bird. A person living with PD would download the game and produce loud sustained sounds which would translate to a bird continuing to fly on their screen. They can also practice low and high pitch sounds to control the height at which the bird flies, and if they say words or phrases loudly enough, they are awarded an extra life in the game. The data collected is fed to a machine learning algorithm which controls how difficult the game is based on how the person is performing.

The idea is to make speech therapy routines more enjoyable and something that can be done at home without having to go into a clinic. The game also generates a detailed report for a speech therapist to access. The team took top prize at the Hackathon and are now working on finishing touches to make the game more user friendly.

“My hope is that eventually this type of game therapy could be used for many kinds of motor impairments, including Huntington disease which is what my thesis is focused on,” says Ramandi. “It was exciting to be given this opportunity to work on developing a novel therapy.” 

“Hypophonia, which is reduced volume of speech, can be a major source of frustration not only for people living with Parkinson’s, but also their caregivers and families,” says Dr. Martin McKeown, Director of the Pacific Parkinson’s Research Centre and one of the Hackathon judges. “Developing new treatments has been challenging, and often requires extensive engagement by the participant. The novel approach by Daniel and his team will assist people with this troubling aspect of Parkinson’s in a clever, engaging manner.”

Learn more about LOUDy bird here: https://braincircuits.med.ubc.ca/activities/brain-tech-2021/