Area of Study: Electrical and Computer Engineering
Research Focus: Developing a virtual reality maze to test a person’s spatial navigation skills because deficits in this ability are characteristic of Alzheimer’s disease.
PhD Advisor: Zahra Moussavi [PhD/97] , Canada Research Chair in Biomedical Engineering
Ahmad Byagowi speaks four languages, loves playing and teaching chess, and robots—his desk is cluttered with robots of all sizes and purposes. He and his colleagues are developing new tools to diagnose dementia. Read more about their research.
How did you get to the University of Manitoba?
I was doing my PhD in robotics in Austria and at a competition in Switzerland in 2008 I met U of M professor, Jacky Baltes, who was interested in my project. He offered me a visiting scholar position at the U of M. When I came to Canada I felt more at home than I did all my life in Austria, which was very strange. I love it here. I am Canadian now.
I love Canada. I love how you treat things more like a society here. There’s a community-based society here. We didn’t have that in Austria. In their culture, you cannot ask someone you don’t know, “how are you?” If you do they’ll be like, “It’s not your business.” Here in Canada, it’s the exact opposite and it’s a match made in heaven with my personality.
Anyway, when I finished my PhD I had an offer from a university in Italy, a job offer from Siemens, and I had the offer from Dr. Moussavi to come here as a post-doc. I chose the Siemens option and worked for a month before realizing that I had to go back to Canada. This community – Winnipeg – it pulled me back. It’s strange.
In a nutshell, what are you investigating?
I don’t know if you know the story, but Dr. Moussavi saw a decline in her mom’s spatial navigation ability, let’s say 5 years before they even diagnosed Alzheimer’s in her. MRI’s and other tests showed nothing wrong, but her mother was losing these abilities on a functional level. Doctors were trying to see what was wrong but they were using imaging tools to try and see plaques in the brain. But it was too early for plaques to show up. There was nothing there.
I’m not a medical doctor, but perhaps if you can diagnose things earlier, you can find new avenues for cures. But if you don’t know anything about the disease until it develops to an irreversible point, it’s much harder to find a cure for it.
So five or six years later Dr. Moussavi’s mom’s symptoms were more severe and the doctors saw plaque. But it was now too late to do much of anything. This struck Dr. Moussavi as something that needed to be addressed; there must be a better way. So she had this idea to assess people’s spatial ability because declines in this ability manifest in people who are developing dementia.
And when I came here as a post-doc I told Zahra that I had a solution and I needed two weeks to prepare it. So I simulated the atrium of the engineering building in a 3D virtual world. She tried it and was not impressed. It didn’t look good – there was no texture. It wasn’t believable. So I told her, don’t worry, give me another week and I will impress you. She said “okay, this is your last chance.” I worked hard and she was impressed….
The first study we published was in 2012. We created a virtual house – a cubic, three-storey house. And when the subject begins the test they are outside the house and they see that a window is lit up. We rotate the house and then ask the person to navigate to the room to turn off the light.
Some people did terrible on the test even though they were healthy. This led us to realize that some people are just bad with computers so we needed something that was more intuitive. Eventually we created the wheelchair that you can either ride in or walk behind and push while wearing VR goggles. It’s an amazingly simple solution for a big problem.
You had a family member diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. How does that impact the way you view or approach your research?
Our whole team has been touched by this disease in some way. Obviously, it’s very hard to lose a family member, but just imagine going through 10 years of seeing your loved one slowly diminish. That is a horrible thing.
What we are trying to do is improve the quality of life [of Alzheimer’s patients] for the life they have left. All I care about is giving people a graceful life. So the moment I had the opportunity to work on this project I said, “Yeah, I’m all for it.”
How does it feel then that your research is so personal, it’s not abstract in any way?
It’s terrifying in a way. You think, ‘Okay, this is given to me. And I’m capable of doing it. I have to do my best to solve this, as a scientist, as an engineer, as a person who can do it.’ It’s not about being a hero. It’s a responsibility to solve a problem. And when you have such feelings you forget about yourself, you are just thinking about solving the problem – no matter the cost. This is what I’m feeling. It’s hard to explain with words.
Do you have any hobbies?
Do you want engineering hobbies?
Anything. What do you do on the weekends?
On the weekends we usually work on the satellite – UMSATS. But I also teach my students how to play chess, or I build robots. Right now I’m repairing a computer because I think it’s ridiculous what they charge to repair them.
Has professor Moussavi given you any good advice?
Absolutely. The idea to interrogate the decline of spatial cognition was all her. I’m the technology guy but this project is all coming from her.