For people who physically cannot perform everyday tasks such as turning on a light switch or closing a door, technology may be about to bridge a gap that could help them lead much more independent lives.
A study at the University of North Georgia (UNG) is examining methods by which people can control electronic devices with their minds — research that could have profound implications for those with physical disabilities.
The project is a collaboration between Dr. Bryson Payne, head of the Department of Computer Science & Information Systems, Dr. Chuck Robertson, associate professor of psychological science, and their students.
Payne, Robertson and students are using electroencephalography (EEG) devices, which measure electrical activity along the scalp. The devices identify which parts of the brain respond to particular stimuli, so the group can replicate the response and train users to control devices from light switches to model helicopters.
Robertson explained that the controlling action will be different than thinking in words what you want a device to do.
"It will be similar to learning to move your hand, like how a baby learns movements," Robertson said. "This technology can also be used to facilitate 'vigilance tasks,' which teach users to stay focused and disregard irrelevant distractions. These methods can be useful in training people to stay focused when monitoring devices, such as military personnel watching a radar screen."
The project and several others are funded by the university's Center for Undergraduate Research and Creative Activities (CURCA), which serves to advance student-involved research as a high-impact practice. The eight "mini-grants," totaling more than $20,700, help faculty purchase materials and fund activities to delve deeper into research with their students. The projects involve students in focused, intensive study that supports the university's mission by providing opportunities for inquiry and creativity and exposure to undergraduate research.
Dr. Anastasia Turner, assistant professor of English, and student John Dees are examining transnationalism as presented in "Tropic of Orange," a novel by Karen Tei Yamashita set in Los Angeles. Using Geographic Information Systems, which is Dees' area of study, they mapped the city as it would have appeared during that time period.
"As our maps have further developed, we've seen a continuing subtext of socioeconomic issues. We've discovered that Yamashita's new geographies crafted in the novel underscore racial and class-based issues that are associated with economic policies, free-trade zones, and national borders," Turner said. "We're now putting these pieces together into a new essay, as well as crafting a few additional maps that we came up with in our process. We hope to put this whole project in print."
Dr. Nancy Dalman, head of UNG's biology department, is researching with students how certain toxins impact the environment by studying their effects on particular species of frog and fish.
"We're studying one protein in particular that acts as a defense mechanism in many animals by pumping toxins out of cells," Dalman said. "The presence of toxins in the environment should increase the amount of this protein in the organisms. The toxins, such as zinc, can cause several problems at several stages of life for these animals. For example, we see increased mortality and malformation rates in the frog embryos when they are exposed."
One of the potential toxin sources Dalman and her students are examining is tire mulch — shredded rubber from old tires that is often used to cover playgrounds. The group is testing water runoff from their own simulated tire mulch area to determine what toxins are present and how the toxin levels fluctuate. Understanding this process and other factors could be critical in protecting vulnerable areas such as salt marshes, which are found along the East Coast and are home to many varieties of fish.
"This research has helped me decide what I want to do in the future," student Ashley Sturm said. "Ecotoxicological research helps us understand what happens in humans when we expose our bodies to chemicals, such as chemotherapy drugs. Tumor cells have the same ability as the protein we are studying, and by doing our research we can learn and understand why certain chemotherapies are effective. I now want to continue in ecotoxicology research to better understand how our actions impact the environment."
Other projects funded by the CURCA mini-grants are:
- "Detection of Salmonella spp. using molecular methods in Eastern Box Turtles, Terrapene carolina carolina, across different seasons," by Drs. Jennifer Mook and Jeanelle Morgan
- "Determination of Hop Alpha Acid Utilization from Whirlpool Brewing Processes using High Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC) & Comparison of Human Bitterness Perception to Chemical Analysis," by Drs. Royce Dansby-Sparks and Bryan Dawson
- "The impacts of biochar on soil microbial community and crop yields in Ultisol soils in North Georgia," by Dr. Ching-Yu Huang
- "Novel methods for and applications of iron detection in biological samples," by Drs. Steven Lloyd, Ryan Shanks and Sarah Formica
- "Evaluating Gene Level Alterations in the Brain Following either Prenatal or Adolescent Methylphenidate Exposure," by Dr. Ryan Shanks
CURCA also facilitates activities ranging from independent student projects to concentrated sessions of faculty-student teamwork. One example is the center's Faculty-Undergraduate Summer Engagement program, which supports eight-week intensive research projects by students with guidance from faculty experts.