Milford company's new technology improving communication for ALS, paralysis patients

A new device being built in Milford by Control Bionics can give voices back to people struggling with ALS, locked-in-syndrome and paralysis.

The NeuroSwitch transforms electromyography (EMG) technology used for diagnostic purposes into a powerful communication system. EMG has been used for decades to test the health of muscles and the nerves that control them. The brain uses the body's electrical systems to send messages to the nerves that make the muscles move, but in patients with ALS or paralysis the muscles no longer move, though the electrical signals are still being sent.

To use the NeuroSwitch, a muscle receiving signals is selected to become the “switch” for the system. EMG sensors are applied to the user's skin over that muscle. The user tenses the muscle, and whether the movement is visible or not the sensor picks up the electrical signal sent from the brain.

The NeuroSwitch device then amplifies it and sends it to a computer, allowing the user to control the computer through AssistiveWare's virtual keyboard and mouse control software. The user can write emails, use the internet or a text-to-speech program allowing them to talk through the computer.

The quality of life for patients using NeuroSwitch is improved not only by more fluent communication between patients and their family, friends and caregivers, but also by increasing their independence and ability to control their immediate environment. The NeuroSwitch operates with Bluetooth, so the user could also adjust lighting, temperature and the television with the right technology as well as answer the phone and send text messages.
Peter Ford
“NeuroSwitch users can communicate with people in the same room, surf the web, send and receive emails and go online to play games in realtime,” says Peter Ford, founder and CEO of Control Bionics and creator of NeuroSwitch. “But as importantly, they can send and receive text messages with anyone's smartphone. This doesn't just expand their communication network, it means families and caregivers know if they are needed a client can text them and they can text back any time. We have received unsolicited testimonials from spouses who say, 'I feel I've been freed up by NeuroSwitch because I can leave the room and know my husband can text me if I'm in the kitchen or the garden. It liberates everyone around my husband, as well as him.'”

The NeuroSwitch is available in the United States, Europe, Australia and New Zealand. Currently, there are just under 50 in use in the U.S., but Control Bionics hopes to increase that number as they develop relationships and accreditation with the FDA, Veterans Administration and GSA.

NeuroSwitch does have a hefty price tag, around $17,000, which includes the laptop, equipment and software as well as 24/7 technology support. The VA will now fully cover the cost of the system, as will some insurance carriers. Control Bionics works with other potential clients to help with crowdfunding to cover the cost of the system.

In his early career, Ford worked as a radio and news anchor, including at CNN Headline News, and that's when he got involved with medical technology.

“I began coding while I was anchoring at CNN in 1981 in Atlanta and developed a virtual robotics program for fun,” Ford says. “Dr. Lynn Drake heard about it and told some colleagues at Georgia Tech who invited me to join a new Rehabilitation R&D Laboratory as a programmer. It was one of the first such labs in the country, funded by the Veterans Administration. My first patient was completely disabled by cerebral palsy, and we wrote a program for them to control everything on what was then a brand new Apple 2e just by tapping a joystick. My interest in coding for rehabilitation began there.”

Ford is Australian and based in Sydney, but Control Bionics and NeuroSwitch production are located just outside Cincinnati.

“Milford is an ideal city to establish a high-tech, zero-pollution company such as Control Bionics,” he says. “It has a great quality of life, is close to Cincinnati's international airport and has a great medical and educational community at the University of Cincinnati and the Veterans Administration Medical Center (VAMC) as well as Children's Hospital Medical Center, among others. We have formed a great relationship with the City of Milford, and our technology comes out now with a 'Made in Milford' logo.”
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Read more articles by Julie Carpenter.

Julie Carpenter has a background in cultural heritage tourism, museums, and nonprofit organizations. She's the Executive Director of AIA Cincinnati.