A 19-Year-Old's Face Tracking Software will Change the Way People with Autism Recognize Emotions

Catalin Voss is CEO and cofounder of Sension.

By the time he was 15, Catalin Voss produced the No. 1 podcast on the Germany iTunes stores and commuted back and forth between his native Heidelberg and Silicon Valley to work for Steve Capps, one of the designers of the original Macintosh Apple computer.

During freshman year  at Stanford University, the coding prodigy added "CEO" to his résumé.

His company, Sension, is a visual interface company seeking to revolutionize the way we learn. Voss, 19, and a small team of Sension employees and Stanford affiliates developed a facial recognition software that works with a simple webcam, allowing anyone to make videos that respond to the viewer.


MELIA ROBINSON, Business Insider, October 16, 2014

10/15 -Latest in Autism News

Scientists Gain Autism Insight By Studying Broccoli

The results of a new autism study were so surprising even one of the authors called it “far- fetched,” at least on the surface. “If you tell someone you’re treating autism with broccoli, they would think you are off your rocker,” said Paul Talalay, who is head of the Laboratory for Molecular Pharmacology at Johns Hopkins University.

He and his collaborators announced today that when they gave a compound called sulforaphane, derived from broccoli, to a small group of severely to moderately autistic teenage boys and young men, there was a dramatic improvement in the subjects’ symptoms. They were calmer, more social and in some cases, more verbal.

This experiment was no long shot, however. It grew out of a long history involving the intersection of two well-developed courses of research.

Coming at it from one side was Talalay, who had been following his curiosity about cancer prevention and vegetables. From another angle came pediatric neurologist Andrew Zimmerman, who had been fascinated by anecdotal reports from parents that their autistic children improved during bouts of fever.

English: Broccoli Deutsch: Broccoli (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The study was small, involving just 29 patients who got the compound and 15 on a placebo. The results were rejected by the New England Journal of Medicine, but accepted into the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. (Addendum: Talalay is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, and academy members can submit papers to this journal without standard peer review. Such papers are reviewed but the authors can choose their own reviewers.)

That suits the researchers fine, since they say the findings must be replicated before they would be of clinical use, and yet the paper reveals new insights into the physiological underpinnings of autism – or autism spectrum disorder – which affects about one in 68 people. “The result implies these symptoms can be changed,” said Zimmerman. “They are not set in stone.”

Talalay explained that his part of this line of inquiry started in the 1980s, when he was investigating cancer prevention – then a rather radical and unexplored topic.  (Talalay is now in his mid-80s and has spent 51 years doing research at Johns Hopkins.)

Experimental work at the time was showing that certain food preservatives known as BHA and BHT appeared to prevent cancer in animals. “I asked the question, how does it work?” The answer to that question, he said, “is at the heart of this entire field of work.”

The answer, he found, was that cells have evolved an intrinsic mechanism to protect themselves from inevitable damage – carcinogenic chemicals, radiation, and damage that comes from the way animal cells use oxygen. We need oxygen for respiration but the process leaves byproducts called oxygen radicals, or free radicals, which damage our cells’ DNA. Talalay found that BHT and BHA amplified the production of enzymes that protect cells from this kind of degradation.

That led him to a very basic question – why are vegetables good for us? Could it be they contain substances that rev up those natural mechanism for protecting cells? To find out, he sent his graduate students to the grocery store.

They brought back a variety of vegetables, but those with the most dramatic effects were the so-called cruciferous vegetables, including broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage.  From broccoli he and his students extracted a single compound called sulforaphane with a strong protective effect. His work on the substance led to a front page New York Times story in 1992. It also led to a whole body of research on sulforaphane, he said, with three or four papers published every week exploring its mechanism of action.

At the same time and unbeknownst to Talalay, pediatric neurologist  Andrew Zimmermen of  Massachusetts General Hospital was investigating anecdotal reports that fever temporarily makes some autistic people more relaxed, more communicative and in some cases better able to express their thoughts in words.

That line of inquiry led him to link the phenomenon to a physical mechanism – fever induces cells to produce substances called heat shock proteins, which can protect cells. He said a body of scientific work also showed that some autistic people have abnormalities in their cells – they show increased damage from oxygen radicals, high levels of inflammation and other signs that the normal protective mechanisms are not working.

About five years ago, Zimmerman came to Talalay and Johns Hopkins colleague Kirby Smith and they started looking at the cell biology of autism and substances that might have a positive effect. “That was a wonderful collaboration,” said Zimmerman. At the time, it wasn’t clear whether the heat shock proteins would have any relevance, or whether the cellular abnormalities were a cause or a symptom of autism.

Zimmerman said he’d never heard of sulforaphane, the broccoli compound, but the collaborators found it seemed to reverse the cellular abnormalities associated with autism. “That was a new realization for us,” said Talalay.  It led them to recruit people for a small human study. They used young males, aged 13 to 27 with moderate to severe autism. 29 got a standardized dose of the sulforaphane – more than you could get from eating broccoli. 15 got a placebo.

The results were striking. “I was bowled over by it,” said Talalay. The improvements were almost too good to be true – a nagging sign that there might have been a mistake. He said they decided to have the results audited by an independent firm. But what they really need is independent confirmation.

Though there’s no harm in encouraging people eating broccoli, Talalay warns that when they tested the vegetable from various supermarkets, the levels of sulforaphane vary by a factor of 20. But in the meantime there’s a lot more to the study and its history, he said. “The insight it provides into what autism is all about may more important.”

Forbes, 10/13/2014 @ 3:00PM


10/9 - Latest in Autism News

15 Incredibly Impressive Students At Stanford

Stanford is easily considered the best college in the west. It’s also the best in the country, taking the No. 1 spot on our list of the Best Colleges in America this year. Known in particular for its exceptional computer science and engineering programs, Stanford is an active hub for talented and impressive students in all fields, from art to tech to business. We’ve profiled 15 incredibly impressive undergrads at this top “dream college”. They’re starring in feature films, playing with the U.S. National Soccer Team, teaching kids to code, and a whole lot more. Catalin Voss developed a facial recognition app that revolutionizes the way we learn. 

Class of 2016 By the time he was 15, Catalin Voss produced the No. 1 podcast on the German iTunes store and commuted back and forth between his native Heidelberg and Silicon Valley to work with Steve Capps, one of the designers of the original Apple Macintosh computer. By freshman year he founded Sension, a visual interface company seeking to revolutionize the way we learn. Voss and his team of roughly eight employees developed a lightweight facial recognition software, one that could track and understand many points in a person’s face. Their software can be used in testing and web lectures to improve the user experience (it might prompt you with a question if it senses you’re not paying attention, or explain something further if you appear confused), and provide analytics to instructors about which test questions stumped students the most. Voss expects the product to be adopted by most major standardized test associations and universities in the next year. His passion project, however, is Sension’s groundbreaking Google Glass app, which allows the wearer to recognize people’s facial expressions in real-time. It begins clinical trials with young people diagnosed with Autism later this month. Clancey Stahr raises seven-figure sums as a partner at a Silicon Valley venture capital firm. 

Class of 2015 At 21 years old, you’re probably more likely to expect Clancey Stahr to be pitching to venture capitalists, rather than being one. But Stahr has been working at cross-border venture capital firm ZenShin Capital for the last two years, advising startups on product design, business strategy, intellectual property, and general legal advice. He was recently made partner at the firm — the third after the company’s two co-founders. Stahr leads the firm’s investments in two major startup clients, Iotera and Simple Emotion, and sits on Simple Emotion’s board of directors. Stahr has also raised significant capital, an undisclosed seven-figure sum, for the first close of ZenShin’s Core Technology Fund. School doesn’t stop for the Management Science and Engineering major, who still manages to get all his coursework done while working anywhere from 30 to 40 hours a week in Silicon Valley. Stahr graduates in May and plans to continue in his role as partner at ZenShin, but hopes to someday start his own company. Garima Sharma is working to end the child bride epidemic in India. 

Class of 2015 This past summer, Garima Sharma set off to teach human rights education to girls in Forbesganj, India on a Stanford fellowship. While there, she interviewed 80 mothers in order to better understand why they force their daughters into early marriage. India is home to 24 million child brides, according to the New Delhi native. The consequences of marrying so young can be devastating: A child bride is twice as likely to suffer from spousal domestic violence and 1.5 times more likely to die in child birth. “The aspirations that parents have for their daughters shape decisions around education, marriage, and career choices,” Sharma says. “I want to better understand the incentives that drive parents’ decision-making process[es].” She designed a research study and spent more than 100 hours interviewing the mothers. Sharma, who also designed and implemented a curriculum to engage adolescent girls in Forbesganj who are at risk of trafficking, plans to pursue a joint MBA/MPA-ID degree and one day run an organization that provides sustainable livelihoods to girls and women in small-town Indian communities. Jacqueline Emerson is an actress, famous for her role as Foxface in the first “Hunger Games” film. Class of 2017 The young redhead originally deferred her enrollment to Stanford for a year in order to pursue her budding acting and singing career. As a senior in high school, she landed the part of a lifetime, as Foxface in the first “Hunger Games” movie. Emerson’s father was recently sworn in as the U.S. Ambassador to Germany, and she divides her time between Palo Alto, her home in Los Angeles, and Berlin. Emerson is studying Chinese and East Asian Studies at Stanford, and is a contributing writer to Maria Shriver’s SHE’S SO BOSS campaign. Since “The Hunger Games,” Emerson has co-starred in a short and a full-length film, and will be playing the role of Eyde in the upcoming horror film “The Curse of Downers Grove.” Jesse Leimgruber’s startup just closed a $1.5 million seed round. 

Class of 2016 Last year Jesse Leimgruber co-founded NeoReach, an internet platform that helps bloggers discover new products they love and awards them on a pay-per-click basis for sharing them with their audiences.  Despite the relative newness of Leimgruber’s startup, it has already raised a $1.5 million seed round (after a $300,000 angel round in January) and $100,000 from Founder.org’s $100K challenge. Let’s just say the company’s off to a great start. This isn’t Leimgruber’s first hand in the world of entrepreneurship; as a sophomore he was recruited to live in a house with other entrepreneurial sophomores where they could brainstorm and support each others’ ventures, and the group raised a collective $5 million in venture capital for four startups. Even before that, his first e-commerce site, Rage Hats, which he started in high school, ended up grossing over $500,000 in revenue. Leimgruber’s focus now lies with NeoReach, which he hopes to grow into a mainstream company and take to IPO after he finishes his management science and engineering degree. Jessie Duan is getting women interested in coding at a younger age. 

Class of 2015 A couple of years ago, Jessie Duan learned a shocking fact: Only 12% of computer science degrees are awarded to women. That’s because in freshmen intro courses, the men often come to class with a bit of background on the subject under their belts already, while women typically don’t. That’s when Duan co-founded Girls Teaching Girls To Code (GTGTC), an organization that gets girls interested in computer science in high school so that they can be more competitive in college. The program has only been around for two years, but already GTGTC has reached over 450 high school girls, including a day-long coding experience that brought together over 200 high school students and 40 female computer science students from Stanford to serve as mentors. Duan, now the executive lead for GTGTC, has also served as teacher’s assistant for Stanford’s introductory computer science courses, and currently serves as the CTO for Stanford’s student government. Duan is still figuring out her plans for when she graduates with a dual bachelor’s-master’s degree in mathematical and computational science — a program that usually takes five years, but which she finished in four. What she does know, however, is that she wants to continue creating change in math education. Jordan Morris played on the U.S. National Soccer Team. 

Class of 2017 From a young age, Jordan Morris proved himself a talent on the soccer field. He captained his high school’s team, and was named Gatorade-ESPN Washington State Player of the Year. But this summer, after just a year on the Stanford soccer team, Morris got a call from U.S. National Team head coach Jurgen Klinsmann inviting him to play against the Czech Republic in Prague. It’s an incredible honor: Morris is the first collegiate player to play for the U.S. National Soccer Team in almost a decade. Morris contributed to a 1-0 victory over the Czech Republic at the international friendly, earning him his first national team cap (and subsequently opening countless doors for a future as a professional player). The 5’11″ forward still has three more years of school to complete, but hopes to play professionally in the near future. In the meantime, Stanford has offered him opportunities that he says “I never thought were possible,” and looks forward to continuing his education both on and off the field. Kristen Powers made a documentary chronicling her family’s battle with Huntington’s Disease. 

Class of 2016 At the age of 18, Kristen Powers became legally able to test herself for the gene for Huntington’s Disease, a neurodegenerative disease that, over time, destroys an individual’s ability to walk, talk, and reason. It’s the take-no-prisoners condition that took her mother’s life when Powers was just 17 years old, and Powers had a 50% chance of inheriting it. While many at-risk adults refuse to get tested, choosing ignorance over a death sentence, Powers decided to undergo the emotionally draining genetic testing process in order to find answers and raise awareness. “The stigmatization of the illness makes it hard to talk about. Fifty years ago, [people with Huntington's] were put away in insane asylums,” Powers says. “It’s incredibly important to normalize the disease; that alone can help a family affected.” Thanks to a successful Indiegogo campaign, Powers was able to produce “Twitch,” a documentary that explains the science through interviews with experts and activists, and draws back the curtain on the Powers family’s experience. The film premiered at Stanford during Powers’ freshman year and has since been screened in 17 cities. Powers, a communications major, discovered that she does not carry the gene for Huntington’s Disease. She plans to continue working toward a cure on the advocacy side and pursue a career in the non-profit or social enterprise sector. Lara Mitra is creating culturally sensitive solutions to gaps in maternal health care in India. Class of 2015Lara Mitra’s summer-long research project revealed that, despite improved access to hospitals (including free ambulance transportation and government incentives to deliver there), the vast majority of women in rural Gujarat, India, still showed an overwhelming support for delivering children with a  dai, or a midwife figure.  The only problem is that most  dais are now in their 70s, and new ones aren’t being trained. Mitra said that dais were indispensable, especially to women in rural villages who may not have access to ambulances. They work in the same villages for decades. Mitra noted in her research that government health workers have recently started providing services in these villages, but they don’t have the same rapport with village residents as their trusted  dais do. Her research suggests long-term solutions that respect the wishes of different cultures, rather than just encourage village women to go to hospitals. Being that she studies human biology with a focus on international rights and maternal health, Mitra hopes to continue her research on the subject in the future. Her plans after Stanford involve working in public service, possibly for the government, in a way that combines her interests in medicine and human rights. Luke Lorentzen’s short film won awards at multiple international film festivals. 

Class of 2015 The summer after his sophomore year, Luke Lorentzen packed up his necessities and video camera and flew to Colombia, where he spent two months living on one of the most densely populated islands in the world. More than 600 people live on Santa Cruz del Islote, a tiny island which is fewer than three acres. Lorentzen set out to document how people in extreme cases of overpopulation live. He found that residents, due to similar goals, values, and a unified sense of purpose and identity, are able to peacefully coexist and treat each other like they all live in one big, cooperative family. Lorentzen turned his footage into a film, called “Santa Cruz del Islote.” Lorentzen’s film previewed at the Full Frame Documentary Film Fest this year, where it received the President’s Award. It also won the Golden Gate Award and Best Bay Area Short at the San Francisco International Film Festival, and received an honorable mention at the Camden International Film Festival. The film will continue to be screened over the next few months. Lorentzen is currently working on another short film, which he hopes to have finished in May, and plans to make a feature-length documentary after he graduates. In the next few years, he sees himself looking at graduate programs in documentary filmmaking, and thinks he may want to eventually teach. Shadi Barhoumi and Rafael Cosman created a free learn-to-code camp for students in East Palo Alto. 

Class of 2015 and 2017, respectively Situated between the Google and Facebook campuses, the racially mixed city of East Palo Alto has seen rapid gentrification since the technology industry boom in the last decade. Still, gangs and staggering levels of unemployment seem to define the area. Making the situation worse still, there are very few places to learn computer science in East Palo Alto. The young people who live there often feel like there’s no place in the tech community for them. Friends Shadi Barhoumi and Rafael Cosman, who met as computer science majors, developed CodeCamp to change that. This past summer, more than 50 students, ages 14 to 23, from East Palo Alto learned to write and design software with the help of over 40 mentors from nearby high schools, universities, and tech companies. Ten campers have since been accepted into an accelerator program to turn their projects into companies. Others are pursuing internships at local tech companies. Barhoumi and Cosman are working now to expand the camp into a year-round community center in East Palo Alto called StreetCode Academy. Stefan Norgaard helped unite a torn Johannesburg neighborhood. 

Class of 2015 When Stefan Norgaard arrived on fellowship in Johannesburg, South Africa, to conduct interviews for his thesis, he quickly discovered there was so much more he could do.  The Maboneng Precinct near downtown Johannesburg is a neighborhood in transition, torn between old and new South Africa. The “Born Free” generation (young adult South Africans with no living memory of apartheid) are witnessing rapid gentrification, the emergence of a black middle class, and racial segregation giving way to equality. Tensions remain between people of different racial and economic backgrounds, however. So for 11 weeks, Norgaard enlisted the help of the “born frees” to construct a 5-foot-by-5-foot plywood box that acts as a vehicle for community engagement. The “community cube” was built using only local materials and has many features: a meeting table, chalkboards and whiteboards for active discussion, a career resource board with job opportunities, and even a platform for crowdfunding initiatives. It roams from the market one day to a political rally the next, and serves as a symbol of unity. Norgaard chats with the cube’s organizers every few day, ensuring that it continues to bridge the gap. While he hopes to create more of these cubes around the world, he says knowing the community intimately is the only way it can succeed. The public policy and urban studies double major hopes to pursue a career in public interest law or institutional reform. Lara Prior-Palmer is the youngest and first female rider to win the Mongol Derby. 

Class of 2017 The Mongol Derby is the longest and toughest horse race in the world, and you’ve probably never heard of it. Last year, its champ was the sprite and seemingly non-threatening Lara Prior-Palmer. The 1,000-kilometer course recreates Genghis Khan’s legendary postal system, with around 30 professionals and semi-professional riders galloping for seven to 10 days through the Mongolian wilderness. Riders change horses at every station, spaced 40 kilometers apart, and sleep among nomadic herders who host them in exchange for small payments or gifts. Prior-Palmer, who grew up riding horses in her native England, registered for the endurance race just six weeks prior, while her competitors had been training for up to a year. Unlike the Kentucky Derby, she says, you’re “riding through the middle of nowhere in a vast lunar landscape. You’re very much alone. There’s no audience cheering you on.” Despite being bucked from horses numerous times, becoming ill on the last night, and even crossing the finish line second, at 19 years old, Prior-Palmer won the crown once penalty points were totaled. She transferred from the University of Edinburgh to study history at Stanford this fall, and has written a book about her experience (she’s currently searching for the right publisher). Nicolle Richards started a micro-business program for survivors of sex trafficking and abuse in Guatemala. 

Class of 2016 Last summer Nicolle Richards lived in Guatemala where she worked with at-risk child rescue and advocacy non-profit Kids Alive to develop a micro-business program for young girls who were victims of sex trafficking and sexual abuse. Richards oversaw the successful implementation of three small businesses, which allowed the girls and their families to live independently from their abusers. A long-time anti-trafficking and human rights activist, Richards, who grew up in Vienna, Austria, spent school breaks in places like Romania and the Dominican Republic volunteering with women and girls who had been subjected to abuse. At Stanford, she and a professor — also a human rights advocate — created a new academic concentration on human trafficking and global inequality that allows students to focus on this issue as a part of their studies. Richards is currently doing a domestic study abroad program in Washington, D.C., where she’s interning at the U.S. State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons. After she graduates, Richards hopes to work for a social good company to find ways to use business to fight human trafficking. Before that, however, she plans to get her Masters in Public Policy (hopefully at Stanford). Sanchay Gupta helps redistribute unused medicine to people who can’t afford it. 

Class of 2015 Last year, almost one-third of working-age adults did not fill prescription drugs because of cost concerns, according to Sanchay Gupta. Meanwhile, approximately $5 billion of unused and unexpired prescriptions drugs are destroyed every year in the US. Supporting Initiatives to Redistribute Unused Medicine (SIRUM) is a non-profit that has developed an online platform to connect surplus drugs with clinics that need them. Gupta, previously a research assistant at the Stanford School of Medicine, earned a fellowship at SIRUM to lead the nonprofit’s development in the assisted living space. Gupta helped build a database of donor residential care facilities — the largest of its kind in California — that makes information on how they store and handle medication totally transparent. He digitized thousands of files, enabling pharmacies to vet these organizations and facilities. Sanchay, a biological chemistry and psychology double major, plans to attend medical school and continue addressing issues of income equality as a physician. Stanford topped our list of the Best Colleges in America. Now see which other schools made the list. The 50 Best Colleges In America » Read more stories on Business Insider, Malaysian edition of the world’s fastest-growing business and technology news website.

10/5 -Latest in Autism News

Parent coaching early intervention program benefits young children with autism

A parent coaching intervention brings meaningful benefits for preschool-aged children with autism-spectrum disorders (ASD), according to a clinical trial. The approach "fosters parents' interactional abilities and play skills to promote their children's functional development," according to the authors. Parents reported that they were able to engage their child in 15- to 20-minute play sessions and throughout daily routines, for a total of two hours per day.

A parent coaching intervention brings meaningful benefits for preschool-aged children with autism-spectrum disorders (ASD), according to a clinical trial in the October Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics, the official journal of the Society for Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics. The journal is published by Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, a part of Wolters Kluwer Health.

The "Play and Language for Autistic Youngsters" (PLAY) Project approach yields improved parent-child interactions, along with other benefits for children with ASD and their caregivers, reports the study by Richard Solomon MD of the Ann Arbor (Mich.) Center for Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics and colleagues. The researchers write, "PLAY offers communities a relatively inexpensive, effective intervention for children with ASD and their parents."

Parent Coaching Sessions Lead to Improvement in Autism Outcomes

128 families of three- to six-year-old children with ASD -- autism or pervasive developmental disorder -- in five US cities participated in the clinical trial, one of the largest, most rigorous studies of its kind in the US. Families were randomly assigned to one of two groups: either the PLAY Project plus usual community services for autism or usual community services alone. Usual community services included special education pre-school, speech/language, and occupational therapy services.

The PLAY Project group received monthly, three-hour home visits from PLAY Project consultants trained and certified in the developmental, relationship-based approach. Through coaching, modeling, and videotapes with written feedback, the consultants taught approaches to improve caregiver-child interactions and child social skills development. For example, parents learned how to identify and respond to their child's subtle and hard-to-detect cues during daily play sessions.

The PLAY Project approach "fosters parents' interactional abilities and play skills to promote their children's functional development," according to the authors. Parents reported that they were able to engage their child in 15- to 20-minute play sessions and throughout daily routines, for a total of two hours per day.

After one year, families assigned to the PLAY Project program showed greater improvement in parent-child interaction. Coaching also led to moderate to large improvements in parents' ability to "sensitively respond and effectively engage their child"; and in the children's interaction skills, with "increased shared attention and initiation."

PLAY Project Provides 'Less Costly, Highly Effective' Option for ASD

The improvements were achieved without adding to the stress associated with caring for a child with autism. In fact, symptoms of depression decreased for parents in the PLAY group. This is one of the first studies to show an improvement in parents' mental health following autism intervention.

PLAY Project was also associated with improved interactional and functional developmental outcomes. On a standard autism rating scale, about one-half of children in the PLAY group improved by at least one category (as did one-third of children in the comparison group). However, these results must be interpreted cautiously, Dr Solomon and coauthors note: "This kind of dramatic improvement in one year is not in agreement with clinical experience."

Applied behavioral analysis (ABA) based approaches, when provided by professionals instead of parents, have been shown to improve developmental outcomes in children with ASD. However, there are challenges in providing such behavioral treatments, especially due to the shortage of trained professional personnel and high costs -- $30,000 to $60,000 per year per child. Recent studies have shown promising results with "parent-mediated programs," like PLAY, where professionals train parents to implement behavioral techniques with their child.

This "real-world" study finds that coaching parents in the PLAY Project approach can improve parent-child interactions and other important outcomes for children with autism. Added to community services, once-monthly home visits yield improved outcomes at an additional cost of $3,500 to $4,500 per year per child. "We're excited about these findings that offer a less costly and highly effective option, especially for children who are presently on waiting lists for higher cost services," Dr Solomon comments. "PLAY can assist in getting children with ASD the intensive services they need while at the critical early intervention age."

Science Daily, BWolters Kluwer Health: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins