Arushi Nath. Toronto. Grade 8 Student.

BrainHack is a global network of collaborative events that bring together experts, enthusiasts, students and the curious to learn, collaborate and develop projects related to brain and neurosciences. The Covid-19 pandemic meant that for the last few years, BrainHack events could only be held virtually.

BrainHack Global Toronto 2022 – a part of BrainHack Global, was held as a hybrid event this year, bringing together participants online and on-site at the Krembil Centre for Neuroinformatic (KCNI) at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), Toronto. The venue was the same as the BrainHack Global Toronto 2019. (Checkout blogpost: BrainHack Toronto 2019: Complexities of Using Machine Learning on Functional MRI Scans – some learnings)

So cool to have an awesome Centre of Excellence (Krembil Centre for Neuroinformatics) on neuron research in my neighbourhood!

I am interested in gathering external data using sensors and working on open datasets for science and the public good, so I decided to participate in my first BrainHack Global Toronto at their physical location. It would allow me to learn more about the exciting field of brain science, meet people working in this sector, and become familiar with new discoveries and ongoing research happening in neurosciences.

Day 1: 8 December 2022

The event started at 9 am with registration, where the participants got some BrainHack swag, including a cool cap and a stress ball in the shape of a human brain. The event began with an introductory session that included some fun ice-breaking activities. The participants had to answer several “Yes/No” questions posed to them by either wearing or removing their BrainHack cap. It was a great way to learn about other participants and whether they had participated in BrainHack events before, had beginner or expert knowledge about neuroscience, and the institutions they came from.

BrainHack Toronto 2022: Introduction and Pitching (Image Credit)

The “pitching session followed this.” Participants could talk for a few minutes about projects they hoped to work on during the BrainHack. They could also talk about skills and expertise they could offer participants during the hackathon. There were around ten pitches made related to MRI scans, computational neuroscience, open hardware, and datasets. I learned a lot of new terminologies, and exciting neurosciences-related challenges participants wanted to work on. It was clear that I would learn a lot and converse with many people during the two-day event.

I also gave a short pitch on a project I hoped to develop during the BrainHack: Assessing Mental Health and Emotion of Astronauts during Long-Term Deep Space Missions. So far, I have worked on analyzing external facial features such as eye and jaw movements for emotion recognition using OpenCV. But I was curious to learn what other tools and techniques were available in the field of neurosciences.

What fun to be back working as a Hackathon Team in the real world! Our project focused on Alzheimer’s Disease and the efficacy of 40Hz sensory stimulation.

The pitching session was followed by “Team Formation” based on the interests of participants. As I am super eager to work with new hardware and sensors, and Alfredo had brought many gadgets to measure brain and heart signals, we decided to create a team along with Kiah, Gabrielle, and Justin. Working together as a hackathon team in a physical world once again was thrilling.

But for brains to function, you need food. And then, there was a break for lunch for some gourmet sandwiches while snacks were available throughout the day. Post-lunch and throughout the day, there were several interactive activities, for example, placing a sticker on your preferred coding language to keep everyone engaged.

Coding, checking new libraries and firmware to gather data from the hardware and analyze it

Our Project: Alzheimer’s Disease

Our project was on Alzheimer’s disease, which causes human memory loss and difficulty in accomplishing simple tasks, e.g. speaking. Patients are found to have abnormal neural oscillations in the gamma band (30hz to 90hz). Some research studies, including GENUS (Gamma ENtrainment Using Sensory stimuli) research, have pointed out the efficacy of 40Hz sensory stimulation (a light flickering at 40hz) to treat Alzheimer’s disease. It was found to be safe and therapeutic.

While Kiah and Justin worked more on the research side of disease and gamma signals. Gabrielle and I worked on the hardware side while Alfredo supported both aspects. We created an instrument to blink light at 40hz using an adjustable pulse width modulation (PWM) meter, which uses rapid switching on and off digital signals to generate analog signals of different duty cycles. We tried using the ECG (heart) monitoring instrument to measure the impact, but we could not make it work. The ECG Instrument had old firmware, and we could not install the newer version on both mac and windows computers. 

It was an exciting first day talking to many people and learning new things. We plan to continue working on this project on Day 2, with many fantastic events lined up, including panel discussions with previous BrainHack organizers on their current research and project presentations from different teams. 

End of Day 1. Excited for Day 2

Day 2: 9 December 2022

Day 2 started with breakfast, and the teams were back to developing the projects they started yesterday: the final project presentations were scheduled at the end of the day.

Panel Discussion: Where do the BrainHackers go?

A panel discussion was organized, bringing together previous BrainHack organizers, participants, and volunteers. The topic was “Where do the BrainHackers go?” so that the BrainHack participants could become aware of career opportunities that are open to them.

The five panellists were: Derek Beaton, Christopher Hammill, Jenny Rieck, Nathan Chan, and Michael Joseph. While some worked at the hospitals, others were employed with research institutes and government bodies.

Each panel member talked about their career path: their current position and the work they are doing, their previous jobs, and the degrees they took starting from high school to undergraduate, graduate and postgraduate levels.

Three points came stood out in the panel discussions:

  1. While all panellists took university degrees in neuroscience, they all branched into different job sectors. It is essential to be flexible, be willing to learn new things, and be open to unexpected opportunities. 
  2. Pick up skills beyond core academic subjects during university years, such as programming (especially R), data visualization, working virtually, individually and in teams, presentation, communication and problem-solving.
  3. Lastly, networking is essential for success and learning about new opportunities. Participation in events such as BrainHack and other hackathons allows you to meet prospective employers or co-workers.

Project Advancement

A break for lunch followed the Panel Discussion. The lunch was delicious pita sandwiches stuffed with vegetables and soft drinks. 

Our team (Me, Kiah, Gabrielle, Alfredo and Justin) gathered again to resume working on our hackathon project. Yesterday, we made a prototype of a light blinking at 40hz to help stimulate memories in patients with Alzheimer’s disease. We also tried to use the Hearty Patch instrument to measure ECG signals. Unfortunately, outdated documentation and firmware meant that we could not use that device to gather data.

Placement of electrodes of the Bitalino

Today I brought a BITalino with me. BITalino is an affordable and open-source biosignals platform designed for education and prototyping. BITalino allows you to measure EEG, ECG, EMG, and EDA signals. I won this BITalino as an Award for winning the 2019 NASA Space Apps Hackathon Toronto for my project on measuring the tree densities of parks across Toronto and becoming the Global Nominee. It was a fantastic opportunity to use the award from one hackathon in another hackathon! 

To measure EEG signals via BITalino, we connected two electrodes, one to the ear lobe and one to the forehead. Then we used ‘Open Signals’ software to visualize live data from those electrodes. We tried experimenting with other signals, such as EMG, by placing three electrodes on the forearm. Unfortunately, as there were many Bluetooth devices at the venue, our device had issues getting a stable connection between the laptop and the BITalino, and we could not obtain longer-duration readings. But it was fun experimenting with the Bitalino and being able to measure different signals.

Wonderful to be able to get live EEG data!

It would be an interesting experiment to merge EEG signals with our flickering light prototype to measure changes in the brain signals when the lights are on and off. I plan to pursue the experiment further after the hackathon.

Project Presentations:

Day 2 of the hackathon was now coming to an end. By 3.40 pm, we started wrapping up our project as presentations by all the teams would begin soon. We created the presentation slides, which included information about Alzheimer’s disease, the project goal, the hardware we used, the data we gathered and a live demo of our prototype. 

All the participants gathered in the main room for the project presentations. Three teams had completed their projects and were prepared to present them.

The first project was about scrubbing data before analysis. SPINS and SPASD data have strong motion effects that cannot be separated from group effects (SSD vs ASD vs Controls). This could be due to differences in the clinical populations given their symptoms. Scrubbing is a procedure that removes the TRs that have a big motion (as indicated by FD values that exceed a certain threshold).

With my Hackathon Group delivering the Project Presentation

The second project presentation was on single-cell RNA-sequence analysis. The team collected tissue samples from a lab and analyzed them to find and group the profiles of every cell.

The final presentation was by our group. We talked about the background problem: Alzheimer’s disease, followed by research showing that flickering light at 40Hz can help patients. One of my teammates had turned our prototype into a more user-friendly version. Attached to a scarf were two lights blinking at 40Hz and a speaker producing sounds at the same frequency. Patients were meant to put this instrument on for 1 hour every day for six months to provide sensory stimulation to help treat this disease. 

I enjoyed the two days of hacking and learning more about the brain and neuroscience. It was my first hackathon on this topic, and I had to undergo a steep learning curve to become familiar with new terminologies and abbreviations. But I enjoyed every bit of it as I learned so many new things, especially the interface between hardware, software and brain signals. We can learn many things about the human brain through a collaborative approach using open data, hardware, software, and open communities. Openness encourages citizen science and inclusiveness.

Hackathon Community Board with Post-it Displays and Team Photos!

The best part was interacting with other participants, who were so patient and open to sharing their knowledge and apprising me of opportunities available in this sector.

I thank the organizers of BrainHack Toronto for organizing the hackathon and presenting me with a mug for being the youngest participant. I plan to drink from the “Mug” every day to remind me of my fun and keep learning new things!

Arushi is a Grade 8 Student interested in using science and technology for public good.

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