Communication Disorders Canterbury University


Dean Sutherland, PhD
Senior Lecturer
Dept of Communication disorders
University of Canterbury

Current Research

Current research focuses on supporting adults with complex motor and speech difficulties to be able to have access to effective communication options. There are two aspects to this research. The first study includes testing a voice-banking protocol and voice donors and creating ‘Kiwi-accented’ voices that can be used on a variety of speech-generating communication systems for people who rely on these devices to communicate.

The second study is comparing the efficiency and user experience of 3 different access methods for spelling words using alternative communication systems. The 3 access methods are ‘eye gaze’, ‘eye tracking’ and computer-based spelling system controlled by a user’s ‘thoughts’ (this involves measurement of the well-documented P300 brainwave form).

Relationship to MND

Many people with motor neuron disease are likely to lose their ability to speak. They are candidates for using alternative and augmentative forms of communication. Accessing AAC systems with limited motor movement requires ‘alternative access’ methods (study 2). Once a speech-generating device is accessible, having access to a voice that enable users to retain a sense of identity is an important aspect of communication and well-being (study 1).

Future Research

Both studies described above have potential for further flow-on research. For example, voice banking experiences of people with MND, AAC system use by people with MND.


Michelle Westley, Masters student, Department of Communication Disorders, University of Canterbury

Claire Elliott, Honours students, Department of Communication Disorders, University of Canterbury

Grace Eriksen, Honours students, Department of Communication Disorders, University of Canterbury

Dr Catherine Theys, Lecturer, Department of Communication Disorders, University of Canterbury

The Team

Dr Theys is overseeing the comparison of AAC access methods study which is being undertaken by Claire Elliott. Michelle Westley and Grace Eriksen are the students completing the ‘Kiwi-voices’ voice banking project.


P: 03-369-5090



Thought-Wired, are a team of 5 consisting of:

Dr James Pau – Biomedical Engineer, Co-founder

Stuart McGill – Cognitive Neuroscientist

Sarvnaz Taherian – Research Psychologist, Co-founder

Sean Carmichael – Software Developer

Dmitry Selitskiy – CEO, Co-founder

They are based at Hobsonville Point Secondary School, Auckland, New Zealand

Current Research

The team are currently researching and developing a brain-computer interface for people with severe physical disabilities, such as Motor Neuron Disease and Cerebral Palsy. The main aim is to create a completely physical free communication system, that utilises the electrical signals of the brain to control applications on a computer.

They have already done several studies to help understand the design requirements to build this system – including software, hardware and training/support components. The current study will be an evaluative, observational study that focuses on the experience of using the current prototype of this technology on people with Motor Neuron Disease.

The methodology is user-centred and incorporates both quantitative and qualitative methods. They want to look at how the training may help people master the technology (quantitative) and how they perceived using and interacting with the system (qualitative).

With the results of this study, they aim to improve upon their current prototype, so that it better meets the needs of the users.

Relationship to MND

Due to the progressive nature of motor neuron disease, people may get to a stage where no existing assistive technology can improve their functional abilities or enable them to communicate. Because brain-computer interfaces only rely on brain activity, it has the potential to assist people who have lost physical function and enable them to continue to participate and communicate later in the stages of the disease.

Future Research

They may continue to test re-iterations of the technology design, as they have noticed that they learn the most when working with the actual customers.

Identified Gaps

It would be good to get an understanding of how many people currently live with MND, and what stages of the disease.

The Team

Thoughtwired are a multidisciplinary team who have been developing this technology for the past 5 years. There idea was inspired by the CEO, Dmitry, who has a cousin with severe cerebral palsy. No existing form of assistive technology works for him, but from his interactions, they know that he has a sound mind- he just lacks the physical ability to communicate his thoughts. Dmitry came across a TED talk that discussed this technology, which inspired him to try a create something useful for people who may be in a similar situation to his cousin.

From here, Sarvnaz and James came on board to help develop and test the proof of concept. Both have backgrounds in academia at the University of Auckland, and approached the development through psychological and technical approach. This meant that from the inception, they have been working with the disability community to understand the needs of all the people who would be using and interacting with the technology.

Stuart and Sean joined us in 2017 to accelerate our research and development cycles. Stuart leads the cognitive neuroscience research, to have a better understanding of how to capture neuro-data to improve our technology. Sean is a software developer, who puts together all of our design requirements.

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