Scientists at the University of Coimbra use artificial intelligence to study autism

The Institute of Systems and Robotics (ISR) of the Department of Electrotechnical and Computer Engineering (DEEC) of the Faculty of Science and Technology of the University of Coimbra (FCTUC) is developing a project that aims to study and characterize the developmental disorders of autism, through artificial intelligence.

Called Move4ASD, the project is developed in partnership with the Institute of Biomedical Image and Translational Research of Coimbra (CIBIT) of the Institute of Nuclear Sciences Applied to Health (ICNAS) of the University of Coimbra and the University of Oxford, United Kingdom, and aims to «use technological approaches based on artificial intelligence methodologies to characterize autism through the analysis of imitation tasks», reveals João Ruivo Paulo, ISR researcher and project coordinator at FCTUC.

This project, he continues, «studies the hypothesis that, in individuals diagnosed with autism, the learning mechanism called mirror neuron is altered, in relation to healthy individuals. Thus, it is believed that the learning of motor activities, such as walking and dancing, and other activities of social interaction, can be misinterpreted by individuals diagnosed with this condition».

According to João Ruivo Paulo, Move4ASD will analyze neurophysiological and behavioral data, captured through electroencephalography (EEG) and three-dimensional movement. «These data will be processed by machine learning techniques to uncover distinctions between healthy subjects and clinical group participants. Through this differentiation between groups, it will be possible to identify neurophysiological biomarkers of motor patterns that are still poorly understood», explains the project coordinator.

With this investigation, the team believes that «it will be possible to contribute to a better understanding of autism, with regard to the mirror neuron system, and in the future, an automatic tool can be developed to identify these biomarkers, which in turn can lead to to an optimized characterization of these disturbances».

In this sense, and to establish a collaboration with the Portuguese Association for Developmental Disorders and Autism (APPDA), several young people from the APPDA in Coimbra visited the ISR, where they had the opportunity to learn about the work carried out by the Institute and to interact with robots, play interactive games and also get to know the Move4ASD project.

According to the Move4ASD team, «this collaboration will be essential to develop relevant scientific knowledge in the scope of these developmental disorders».

This project, funded by the Foundation for Science and Technology (FCT), involves, in addition to researcher João Ruivo Paulo and professors Paulo Menezes and Gabriel Pires, from DEEC/ISR, professor Miguel Castelo Branco and Teresa Sousa, from CIBIT/ICNAS, as well as Tingting Zhu, a researcher at the University of Oxford.

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