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Toronto (Nov. 21, 2005) - An enterprising team of Toronto and Vancouver researchers has captured first prize in an international competition for designing an anti-collision system for powered wheelchairs - an advance that could provide new independence for wheelchair users with cognitive disabilities.

"This award really validates our research," says Dr. Alex Mihailidis, a Toronto Rehab scientist and assistant professor of occupational science and occupational therapy at the University of Toronto. "We believe our anti-collision system could help people with dementia to get around independently, with big implications for their quality of life. We're thrilled to have taken the top prize in this highly competitive contest."

Mihailidis and co-team leader Jesse Hoey led the only Canadian team in the final round of the CanestaVision" design contest, sponsored by San José, Calif.-based Canesta Ltd.

Powered wheelchairs are not always safe for older people with cognitive impairments, such as Alzheimer's disease, because they may not be completely aware of their surroundings. But without this option, loss of mobility can lead to depression and a reduced quality of life.

The new system, developed by Mihailidis and colleagues at U of T and the University of British Columbia, uses a three-dimensional sensor made by Canesta to calculate the distance from the wheelchair to objects ahead. The wheelchair automatically stops if something is in the way and verbally prompts the wheelchair user to go in a safer direction.

It all started a year ago when the researchers entered the contest, which called on contestants to develop useful applications for electronic perception technology. After the Canadian team made it to the first round, they were sent a box containing Canesta's 3-D perception sensors. Last summer, the researchers worked hard to incorporate the sensors into their obstacle-avoidance wheelchair system. They sent in their submission and a video of their technology in action - and then waited for word.

The award comes with $10,000 U.S., which the researchers will dedicate to further refining their wheelchair system so it can actually "learn" the wheelchair user's environment and provide more advanced, detailed promptings. They also want to test their system in a nursing home setting.

"We have all seen people in nursing homes who aren't capable of driving manual wheelchairs so they often just sit and look out the window," says Dr. Geoff Fernie, vice president, research, at Toronto Rehab. "This innovative research could dramatically improve the situation."

The prize-winning research is part of a larger study of anti-collision wheelchair systems run by Toronto Rehab, with funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. Trials are taking place at Sunnybrook and Women's College Health Sciences Centre.

About University of Toronto

The University of Toronto is Canada's leading teaching and research university and aims to be among the world's best. For 12 consecutive years, U of T has taken the top spot among medical/doctoral universities in the annual Maclean's magazine university ranking. With more than 70,000 students, U of T comprises 28 divisions, colleges and faculties on three campuses. This includes 14 professional faculties, nine fully-affiliated teaching hospitals, numerous research centres and Canada's largest university library system - the third largest in North America.

About Toronto Rehab

The Toronto Rehabilitation Institute (Toronto Rehab) is at the forefront of one of the most important and emerging frontiers in health care today: rehabilitation science. As a fully affiliated teaching and research hospital of the University of Toronto, Toronto Rehab is Canada's largest provider of adult rehabilitation services, complex continuing care, and long-term care. Toronto Rehab is advancing rehabilitation knowledge and practice through research, education and patient care.

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