ICAI Interview: Improving patients’ vision and hearing with the help of AI

Umut Güçlü and Yağmur Güçlütürk run the Donders AI for Neurotech Lab together. With the help of machine learning techniques the lab tries to develop solutions that restore sensory and cognitive functions. These can be, for example, tools that improve hearing and vision, but they can also be solutions to help paralyzed people communicate or to suppress epilepsy. Güçlü and Güçlütürk: ‘We use an immensely high level of interdisciplinary exchange – with engineers, experimentalists, surgeons and ethicists – to achieve our goals.’

Umut Güçlü
Yağmur Güçlütürk

Donders AI for Neurotech Lab is a collaboration between the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour, Radboud University, Phosphoenix, Advanced Bionics, Oneplanet Research Center and Abbott.

Dr. Umut Güçlü is lab manager of ICAI’s Donders AI for Neurotech Lab and is assistant professor of AI at Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour.

Dr. Yağmur Güçlütürk is lab manager of Donders AI for Neurotech Lab and is assistant professor of AI at Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour

First of all, what are your roles as lab managers?

‘Together, we are responsible for the day-to-day running of the lab. That is, we coordinate communication and research activities as well as supervising the Master students and the PhD candidates in the lab.’

The Donders AI for Neurotech Lab is working on an interesting combination: AI combined with neural implants. What kind of things is the lab working on now?

‘We develop machine learning methods for brain reading and brain writing technologies that restore cognitive and sensory function. We try to answer questions like: How can we use machine learning methods to optimally stimulate the brain via cortical implants? How can we improve the speech understanding of the users of cochlear implants? (Cochlear implants are small electronic devices that electrically convert sound into electric pulses to restore or improve someone’s hearing, red.) Another project revolves around the development of techniques for decoding and regulation of cognitive states like emotions, attention and stress.’

What are the opportunities and what are the challenges?

‘Tens of millions of people suffer from blindness and hundreds of millions of people suffer from deafness across the world. These losses can be devastating and greatly reduce one’s autonomy and quality of life. On top of that, large economic losses to society are accrued due to reduced workforce participation and burden of care. Thus far, however, previous implants have provided limited recovery of function. Hence, several crucial technological advances are required before effective, safe, permanent solutions are available to patients. Alleviating these challenges is our biggest opportunity.’

In what way can AI be used in neurotechnology?

‘AI has made huge leaps forward, allowing breakthroughs in object recognition, language processing, and even autonomous driving. With AI, a computer learns on its own from data, and develops an “answer” that can be used autonomously by a mechanical or electrical device. Here we use AI to improve the performance of brain-reading and brain-writing, enabling the automatic sensing of a signal in the outside world, or from a brain recording, that can then be directly fed to a neurostimulator for disorders of vision, movement, hearing, communication, and for the prevention of debilitating seizures. Our team is making use of the latest AI techniques in neural networks and probabilistic inference developed towards optimal signal detection, useful for the neurostimulation applications requiring rapid, and adaptive, brain-reading and brain-writing applications.’

And in what way is your lab’s approach different from other research?

‘I would say: the immensely high level of interdisciplinary exchange required to achieve our objectives. Given the scale and sophistication of our undertaking, we work together with different companies, knowledge institutes, patient organizations and an advisory board. For example, we closely collaborate with engineers who develop hardware, with experimentalists who use animal models, surgeons and physicians who perform clinical trials as well as with ethicists who keep societal implications in check.’

What kind of implants in this area are already being used by patients?

‘There are already hundreds of thousands of cochlear implant users in the world. While there is still room for breakthroughs, it is a mature technology in common use. In contrast, the technology readiness level of visual cortical implants is relatively low, having only been demonstrated as a proof-of-principle in recent studies with great leaps in the horizon. For example, one of our close collaborators Eduardo Fernández from the University Miguel Hernández in Spain recently demonstrated how an array of penetrating electrodes can produce a simple form of vision by conducting a series of experiments with a 58-year-old blind volunteer who has been blind for the last 16 years. The blind volunteer was implanted with 100 microelectrodes in the visual cortex of the brain and wore camera eyeglasses. A software was used to transform what the camera captures to how the electrodes stimulate the neurons in the brain. As a result, images comprising white points of light known as “phosphenes” were created directly in the mind of the volunteer who was able to identify lines, shapes and simple letters evoked by different patterns of stimulation.’

Interested to find out more about the research of this lab? On December 16, Donders AI for Neurotech Lab will talk about their state-of-the-art work during the lunch Meetup of ‘ICAI: The Labs’ on AI for Cognition in the Netherlands. Find out more and join!