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The Science of Developing Language Skills

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In this installment dedicated to research in Brain related areas, we sit down with Professor Helen Grech, a speech language pathologist and audiologist, to understand how her recent work is helping identify speech and language impairment in Maltese children.

Prof Helen Grech
Prof Helen Grech

As children, language acquisition comes naturally. By listening to others speak and seeing them act out what it is they’re saying, we learn what ‘a table’ is, how questions are formed, and that figures of speech are almost never literal. Yet what comes naturally to many, may not be that straight-forward to others.

That’s why Professor Helen Grech, who has a professorship in communication therapy, and practises as a speech language pathologist and audiologist, set out to develop and standardise a simple test which can identify speech and language difficulties in Maltese children.

“The patterns of Maltese children when it comes to language development are different to those of children in other countries,” Professor Grech explains. “That’s not only because the language is unique but also because most of our children are exposed to Maltese and English to varying degrees. That’s fantastic, of course, but it also changes things when looking to identify any language-learning difficulties.”

Scientists and researchers have discovered, in fact, that children who are bilingual from infancy, initially develop speech and language skills at a different rate and pattern, but in the long run, they are actually better-equipped at language-learning than their monolingual counterparts.

“This makes a world of difference when assessing a child’s ability and whether or not he or she has any impairments,” continues Professor Grech. “Moreover, even though many children in Malta are bilingual, the truth is that most of them have a primary language (English or Maltese), and that is something that we had to take into consideration as well.

“To give you an example, an English-speaking, three-year-old might have difficulty saying ‘ruler’ (they’d pronounce it as ‘yule’), whereas a Maltese-speaking child would say ‘liga’ to signify ‘riga’. But what happens when you mix both of those together is what we’re concerned with,” she adds.

The standardised ‘Maltese-English Speech Assessment’ (MESA) test, for which parents

can refer children to the speech therapy service at their nearest clinic, is relatively straight forward. Using simple images, narrative comprehension text and a test that checks their proficiency, professionals are able to determine if
a child has any language impairments (ie whether that child’s language skills are the typical or atypical for children of his or her age).

Of course, the test is simple due to all bilingual (1)the work that has gone into it, including collecting data from homes across Malta and Gozo and validating it at clinics all over the island; a process which took over six years to complete was done through the Framework Projects of the European Union 6 and 7.

But, some parents may ask: what happens to children whose impairments are not identified?

“What’s important to remember is that speech and language processing is all cognitively processed by the brain, but it is not necessarily related to brain pathology, in that it is not only a side-effect of a neurological condition, which can be primary or secondary to an underlying condition,” Professor Grech continues.

“When left unidentified, language impairment can have a dramatic effect on a child’s life. From bullying in schools to life-long low self esteem, as well as difficulty in communicating and all the byproducts of that.”

Apart from this, the Department of Communication Therapy within the Faculty of Health Sciences, of which Professor Grech is head, is also working on various other research projects to help the development of vocabulary, auditory processing skills and written language skills in Maltese children, as well as a study related to acquired language skills, for example, following a stroke.

“There is still so much that we need to research and understand to help children and adults with speech impairments, and language-learning difficulties, as well as those who have trouble with auditory processing skills,” she concludes.

You too can be part of this fascinating world of research by supporting researchers in all the faculties of the University of Malta. A fund raising concert will be taking place with proceeds going towards brain related research, featuring internationally acclaimed violinist Carmine Lauri in Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. Please click here for more information on the concert. To book online please click here

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A man for All Seasons

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In last week’s blog Four Seasons for Brain Research RIDT CEO Wilfred Kenely speaks about the relationship between art and fundraising for research. This week we feature internationally acclaimed violinist Carmine Lauri who will be the soloist for this concert to be held on Sunday 27th March.  Carmine Lauri’s name is synonymous with the violin, but in this interview with Alex Vella Gregory we discover there’s also reel tape and wooden spoons! (Article feature in the Sunday Circle, February 2016)

Carmine LauriIt all started with wooden spoons. Actually, there’s a little bit more than that: wooden spoons and a very musical family. As a tiny tot, Carmine Lauri wanted to join in the weekly music making at home (weekly music making…what a luxury!), and so he picked up two wooden spoons. Most kids would do the obvious thing, and turn every reachable surface into a drum. But instead Carmine Lauri promptly put one spoon under his chin and started fiddling away.

Carmine Lauri needs very little introduction. He is one of the top Maltese musicians of his generation, a violinist who performs regularly with some of the best orchestras around, and a consummate artist whose performances have received great acclaim. But perhaps Carmine Lauri’s best quality is his humanity.

Even though he has years of music making behind him and has made a name for himself abroad, he remains wonderfully down-to-earth. Despite all those years of working in the highest echelons of music-making, he has maintained a fresh approach to music.

People sometimes struggle to understand what the life of a musician is like. True, the thrill and magic of the stage forms an important part of it, but it is a life of great sacrifices. Very often, one is constantly on the go, and has to adapt quickly and constantly to different environments. ‘I lead a very hectic lifestyle, and what I look forward to most is time out at home.’

Being an orchestra leader also has its pressures, and its rewards. An orchestra leader is an important point of reference for the whole orchestra, and a vital connection with the conductor. There is a great responsibility not just on a musical level but also on a human level. On top of that, it’s the orchestra leader who gets all the important (and difficult) violin solos in a piece. It is no easy task, but Lauri is the perfect man for the job, with his blend of musicality, common sense, and a sense of humour.

‘To err is human,’ it has been said. Watching an artist perform on stage can sometimes make us forget that deep down these are human beings like us, and that occasionally things can go wrong. ‘Do things ever go wrong?’ I ask Carmine Lauri. He’s at a loss from where to begin.

‘A fairly recent one was actually my fault. During a performance of Stravinsky’s Petrushka with the LSO and Valery Ghiergiev, I happened to be sitting as co-leader on the front desk and during the concert I accidentally turned two pages at once for my colleague who was leading, and we both came in crashing playing loudly for a few bars while the rest of the orchestra were playing simple pizzicato notes!’

There was also the time he was playing Dvorak’s Symphony No. 6 with the LSO, under Sir Colin Davis’ direction, and he was playing on a Stradivari violin he had just borrowed for a few years. Carmine Lauri got somewhat over-enthusiastic, and the E-string snapped halfway through the performance. Of course, it wasn’t the first time he had changed a violin string mid-performance, but in his haste the peg flew out of the violin neck and landed somewhere in the flowers in front of him. Between frantically searching for the peg, and holding on to the Stradivarius like his life depended on it, he missed the entire first section of the symphony.

 

Sometimes keeping your playing fresh is extremely difficult. Just think of the poor folks at the Vienna Philharmonic who every year have to play The Blue Danube and the Radetzky March for the New Year’s Day concert. I get nauseated just by watching 10 seconds of it, let alone having to play it every single year. ‘I would not have lasted long in my career if every time I played a Brahms symphony I always played the same fingerings and bowings year after year,’ says Lauri.

So how does he approach a work like Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, ostensibly one of the most performed works in the classical canon? Carmine Lauri will be performing it in Malta on the 27th of March, and I’m curious how he prepares for such a concert. ‘So many interpretations have been presented to the worldwide public, some rather eccentric and I try to find a fair balance whenever I perform them.’ says Lauri. ‘I am not one to experiment to such an extent that I end up destroying what was originally written, and am not too much in favour of such interpretations.’ For Lauri, it’s about finding the right balance between respecting the original and giving it a new lease of life.

With a composer like Vivaldi, that is no easy task. Vivaldi’s music makes great use of repeated patterns and sequential passages, and can very easily sound dull in the wrong hands. Several critics and musicians have had a go at Vivaldi, including Stravinsky who considered him a ‘a dull fellow who could compose the same form so many times over’. Lauri begs to differ. He believes that Vivaldi has a lot to offer, and I would tend to agree with him.

However, composers like Vivaldi, or even specific works like The Four Seasons, tend to eclipse a vast and sadly neglected repertoire. How many of us have heard Cesar Franck’s Symphony in D minor? Or even Ibert’s Escales? Carmine Lauri also singles out Suk’s Asrael Symphony, a work which Lauri considers ‘one of the most difficult’ he has ever performed.

Classical music is going through an interesting transformation. The digital age has made the dissemination of classical music easier to manage, and has put it on an equal footing with other musical genres in terms of distribution. All the ‘unknown’ works Lauri has mentioned are easily available on YouTube, therefore all you need to do is just log on and click away. There is also a broader definition of classical music, and composers and musicians alike have embraced this diversity. ‘Classical music will always have a future,’ asserts Lauri confidently. ‘It’s rich, it’s a treasure, it’s probably the most understood languages without words.’

True, the rapid developments in music recording technology has revolutionised the way we experience music, and although Carmine Lauri is confident that recordings can never replace live performances, he does have a little music tech confession to make. ‘I have a very strange passion that started since before I could even walk and that’s for reel to reel tape recorders’ confesses Lauri. ‘I have a fascination for them and have collected quite a few of them, some very professional ones and some very vintage and am surrounded by all sorts of different brands of tape at home, probably have around 500 reels of tape and around 11 tape machines.’Poster 4 seasons Carmine Lauri

His interest is not a simple fascination with old machines, but a very active involvement in his hobby. Carmine Lauri often does all the repairs himself, which is both admirable given that classical musicians are not usually associated with music technology, and also rather ironic given that he was then defeated by an 18th century Stradivarius peg mid-performance.

Carmine Lauri is strong advocate of keeping an active healthy mind, and is suspicious of
our dependence on social media. For him, whether he is at work or relaxing at home, keeping mentally active is extremely important. Lauri is therefore honoured and proud to be performing as part of the University of Malta’s  Brain Awareness Campaign. His upcoming Malta engagement is in fact organised by the Research, Innovation and Development Trust (RIDT) within the University, and it is a fundraising concert to help with research funding in mental health issues.

Carmine Lauri plays ‘The Four Seasons’ will be held on Sunday 27th March at 19:30 at St Publius Parish Church Floriana. This concert is supported by APS Bank, ADRC Trust and Studio 7, and all proceeds will go towards brain research, within the UoM. Tickets and further info can be obtained from St James Cavalier, Spazju Kreattiv on 21223200 or click here to purchase online.

The Four Seasons for Brain research

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Next month, on Easter Sunday 27th March, RIDT will be presenting Vivaldi’s famous violin concertos The Four Seasons in aid of brain research, featuring internationally acclaimed violinist Carmine Lauri under the direction of Michael Laus. RIDT CEO Wilfred Kenely speaks about the relationship between art and fundraising for research. (This article featured in First Magazine, February 2016)

Wilfred KenelySome months ago, researchers and academics from a number of departments and faculties of the University of Malta set up the Malta Neuroscience Network. This includes scientists working in pathology, anatomy, clinical medicine, psychology, ICT, cognitive science and other areas related to brain activity. These people are conducting research in their respective area of brain study. Some of the research covers more than one area, thus cutting across multiple departments and faculties.

The brain is perhaps the most complex machine that we can find in the entire world, and scientists all over the world have always been keen to decipher how it works. Science has come a long way in this regard and today we know much more than, say, 50 years ago, but there is still a lot that we don’t know and that’s why we need to keep investing in research.

Between the 14 and 20 March, the Malta Neuroscience Network joins the international community to celebrate the Brain Awareness WeekTogether with the other activities to be held during this week, RIDT is organising this concert as part of the awareness raising for brain research.

We believe that in order to promote top-notch science and research we should have top-
notch events and so we asked two internationally acclaimed artists – violinist Carmine Lauri and conductor Michael Laus – to support our event and are very honoured that they obliged. The performance will be supported by a 14-piece string ensemble that is also made up of some of the best musicians currently based in Malta.

Through this fund raising event we would like to Poster 4 seasons Carmine Laurigive people the opportunity to enjoy a lovely evening of the beautiful music of The Four Seasons performed by some of our best talent, and at the same time contributing to our cause. I believe this is a win-win opportunity.

This concert is supported by APS Banks and the ADRC Foundation. They have given their financial support through which we can cover all our organisational expenses, making it possible for all our proceeds to go towards our goal. We also received the support of the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra, who is providing the harpsichord to be used in the concert together with logistical support.

The RIDT is continuously reaching out to attract more and more funding for research. We would like to reach a stage where all sectors – industry NGO’s and individuals – will consider supporting research when considering making a philanthropic contribution. Similarly, we would like to see more and more companies include support for research in their CSR programmes.

There is no arguing about the fact that we, as a country, are always ready to support a good cause. The RIDT strongly believes that university research deserves to be considered as another good cause that merits our support. What lies ahead is not for the RIDT but for the whole nation. An investment in research is an investment in our future.

Booking for The Four Seasons is open. Tickets are available from St James Cavalier tel: 21223216 or online by clicking here.

 

The Power of ‘Sahhtek’ – a national survey on diabetes

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With the third-ever national diabetes survey now underway, the Head of the Department of Public Health at the University of Malta, Dr Julian Mamo, explains just how important the data collected will be to the nation’s well-being.

Julian Mamo
Dr Julian Mamo

Diabetes is a metabolic disease many of us have heard of and discussed. That should come as no surprise since Malta has among the highest prevalence of diabetes in the Mediterranean, with around 38,000 people estimated to suffer from the affliction at any one time – more than 9% of the population and growing, in fact.

Even so, surveys about the disease are rare and, to date, only two large ones have been performed: One in 1963, which was coordinated by Dr Joe Zammit Maempel and funded by the Royal University of Malta, and another between 1981 and 1982, backed by the World Health Organization (WHO).

“The first one was an early attempt at measuring how common the disease was, though the methodology that followed does not allow one to conclude this,” explains Dr Julian Mamo, the Head of the Department of Public Health at the University of Malta. “The second had more recent science behind it as well as the backing of the WHO. This provided better information.

“However, since 1982, the population of Malta has changed in many ways. We have become more multicultural, with many people of different ethnicities and from various countries living here. In addition, recent years have seen Malta’s population become increasingly older and more overweight – both of which affect the frequency of diabetes,” he continues.

Now, Dr Sarah Cuschieri, under the supervision of Dr Mamo, has undertaken the titanic task of conducting a national survey and to determine the most recent prevalence of the disease in Malta (proportion at each age and gender group) and understand how gender, lifestyle, diet, blood pressure, being overweight, genetics and other factors affect the disease. (View an earlier blog  dedicated to Dr Cuschieri on the The Quest to Quantify Diabetes).

“Dr Cuschieri showed me her initial PhD proposal four years ago, and seeing the determination and capacity of her will, the idea behind Saħħtek was born,” says Dr Mamo. “Our first problem, so to speak, was that of getting different experts onboard. Now, apart from myself working on epidemiology, there is Professor Josanne Vassallo working on diabetes and Dr Neville Calleja working on medical statistics. Professor Alex Felice and Dr Nikolai Pace from the databank are our experts from the genetics side

“The pilot for this project was launched in September 2014,” adds Dr Mamo, “and we’ve just made our changes and set off on the main fieldwork.  Dr Cuschieri finished the data collection phase last November with a total of 47% of the selected applicants (or approximately 1,800 people) responding to the call. That’s 7% more than the expected average – which was very good, especially given the fact that blood is also taken and that this puts many off.”

Sarah Cuschieri
Dr Sarah Cuschieri

In order to ensure that the study truly reflects the population of Malta, Dr Cuschieri and her team went to numerous local clinics all over Malta and Gozo, calling up selected applicants from the locality to attend for their appointment.

“One thing that hasn’t changed since 1963 is the reliance on University rather than national resources,” explains Dr Mamo. “Dr Zammit Maempel’s survey was funded mostly by the (then Royal) University of Malta – as is ours. We did, however, get the support of the hospital lab and the use of the local clinics all over Malta (the Bereġ). In fact, because funding is not easy, Dr Cuschieri is conducting the Oral Glucose Tolerance tests, as well as much of the genetic tests herself.

“Thankfully, this project has been greatly supported by medical students at UoM, who helped us collect the data. In fact, Dr Cuschieri has had a dedicated group who remained with her for a year and a half. We are also very grateful to several companies who have donated money to make this possible.”

As Dr Mamo tells us, this project has cost in access of €330,000; €200,000 of which came directly from University (various sources) and with the Alf Mizzi Foundation as a major funder. Several others lent their support, headed by the Atlas Insurance investing heavily in the project. Even so, this still wasn’t enough to completely fund the project, but following a meeting with Mr Wilfred Kennely, the CEO of RIDT, Dr Mamo and Dr Cuschieri got the final amount that was required to kick-start this project.

“While I feel happy to have set things off by appointing Dr Cuschieri in this direction, it is still a dream come true for me. This epidemiological project will be a great gift to Malta in the years to come, particularly for the healthcare sector, as we need to make policies based on up-to-date evidence and this project is a step in that direction.

“Dr Sarah Cuschieri has very ably led the survey and, together, we have overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles to see it through. I believe that public health in Malta owes much to the sheer strength, determination, energy and perseverance of Dr Sarah Cuschieri,” Dr Mamo concludes.

You too can be part of this fascinating world of research by supporting researchers in all the faculties of the University of Malta. Please click here for more information on how to donate to research through the Research Trust (RIDT).

 

The Real Telekinesis

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What would have once seemed like an object straight out of a sci-fi film, is now a device that could help millions. Here, Professor Kenneth P Camilleri gives us an exclusive insight into the Brain-Machine Interface and how Malta is furthering the study.

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Prof Ing Kenneth Camilleri

The human body is an amazing machine; one that does so much with very little thought or effort. Yet some of the things that are crucial in shaping and defining our individual reality, are often the things we take for granted.

Think for a second about the fact that you can read this. Your eyes are bending light and creating an image that your brain can read without a second thought. Think, also, of the fact that you are now breathing, thinking, digesting and pumping blood without making much of it. But how often do we stop and think what would happen if that had to stop?

Much like the aforementioned examples, communication and control are two devices most of us use in our daily lives. We pick things up, get dressed, hold a fork and clean ourselves, all this by using our hands which we have the the ability to control through our brain. And what about putting our point across? We talk, type and gesticulate continually.

For some people, however, that is impossible. But a new machine is now set to change all that.

“A Brain-Machine Interface (BMI) gives a person the ability to communicate with and control machines using brain signals instead of peripheral muscles,” explains Professor Kenneth P Camilleri, from the Department of Systems and Control Engineering who, along with his team, has been working on developing new algorithms to extract useful information from the brain signals.

“BMIs allow people with severely restricted mobility to control devices around them, increasing the level of independence and improving their quality of life,” he continues. “Moreover, BMIs may also be used by healthy individuals in various industries, such as in gaming, as an alternative means of communication and control. And they are expected to become ubiquitous in the future, too.”

The way these machines work is quite simple in theory: By acquiring the electrical brain activity using electroencephalography (EEG) electrodes (such as those evoked by flickering visual stimuli), BMIs can then translate that information into a concrete actions, such as switching on a television set, or typing on a computer.

“We have developed BMIs whereby flickering visual stimuli are associated to commands, and the EEG signals are processed to detect the command associated to the brain pattern,” continues Professor Camilleri. “We have applied our BMI work totechnology_04_1_temp-1335791250-4f9e8e92-620x348 three different practical applications that demonstrate their effectiveness, namely as a Brain-Controlled Music Player (dubbed the ‘Walnut’), a brain-controlled motorised bed, and a brain-controlled keyboard.

“Moreover, Maltese researchers’ experience and growing interest in BMIs provide an opportunity to innovate and break new ground in this area,” he adds. “We have been studying computational methods to process brain signals acquired from the scalp for over 12 years, and we have developed new algorithms that may extract useful information from the brain’s signals.”

Among the many individuals working with Professor Camilleri, are Dr Tracey Camilleri and Dr Owen Falzon, both of whom are contributing to this work on Brain-Machine Interfaces. In addition, Dr Tracey Camilleri also supervised Ms Rosanne Zerafa, who worked on the brain-controlled music player, while Dr Owen Falzon supervised Mr Norbert Gauci on the brain-controlled motorised bed.

As RIDT, we are now trying to get funding for this fantastic research because, as Professor Camilleri puts it, “Projects such as these require a lot of money, particularly for more research resources for this activity and to recruit doctoral students and postdoctoral researchers to work in this area.”

The work now continues, but one thing’s for certain: No one knows what the future of BMIs will hold, but if the past is of any guarantee, we can safely assume that it will be extraordinary.

You too can be part of this fascinating world of research by supporting researchers in all the faculties of the University of Malta. Please click here for more information on how to donate to research of this kind through the Research Trust (RIDT).

 

 

 

Culture-Supported Research

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Jonathan Shaw

17 years after it was first held, Teatru Unplugged has become a highly-anticipated fixture on the local social calendar. Here, founder and producer of the popular concert Jonathan Shaw, tells us why the money raised from the last edition of Teatru Unplugged, went to cancer research.

Art and research have long been bedfellows; so much so, that some of the best anatomical drawings we have, including a series by all-round Renaissance man Leonardo da Vinci, were done by painters conducting research for their art.

That relationship still exists in the modern world, but the ways in which it is carried out are much more varied; so varied, that some may even assume that those two elements inhabit different spheres altogether.

Yet, as entrepreneur Jonathan Shaw, who is known as one of the minds behind one of the most successful cultural ventures on the island, knows, together they can still do great things.

“Teatru Unplugged was an idea generated in 1997 between Nirvana Azzopardi and I,” Shaw explains. “The concept was to attract a new and younger audience to the Manoel Theatre, a place which was mostly the haunt of classical theatre-goers for classical events. To counteract this, we came up with a musical variety show that includes rock, jazz and bits of classical in short bursts, so the patron would get a taste of the different genres.”

Today, Teatru Unplugged is the longest-12002969_1049952728357985_2710742720240115273_nstanding fixture on our cultural calendar, attracting both great names to perform in it and host it (a list for the latter includes Lou Bondi, Pawlu Borg Bonaci, Clare Agius, Josef Bonello and Pia Zammit), as well as a great audience to enjoy the show.

“A part of the proceedings or the money raised through initiatives associated with Teatru Unplugged have always gone to good causes,” Shaw continues, “but ever since Nirvana passed away, we’ve committed ourselves to doing it towards cancer-related causes.

“This year we decided to go further than that, and got involved with RIDT, the research Trust of the University of Malta. We believe that Investing in research to help find possible or potential solutions to a problem is just as important as helping those who are currently facing that scenario.

“Nonetheless, I see that it may seem less humane or emotional, maybe even clinical and scientific, but, in my opinion, it’s important to channel support to the long-term solution at the root. In other words, to use an analogy, if you have poverty, you can give money so they can buy food in the short-term, but you  can also invest in training programmes to help those people in the long run. And, historically, the latter is more important.”

Before taking this decision, Shaw spoke to Nirvana’s parents, who still have an active role and say into where the proceedings go. “They also see the importance of donating towards research,” Shaw adds.

12391245_1088299164523341_8298021488168237260_n“Moreover, the research funded through RIDT is being done locally at the University of Malta so, in a way, raising funds for RIDT works both ways. This year, for example, we’re supporting a PhD student for a local scholarship.

“And, yes, from a practical business point of view, when you’re faced with a world-wide situation like cancer, and when so many countries and companies are trying to find a cure, many may find it hard to believe that Malta will be the place in which a cure will be found. But we can’t reason like this. We have to believe in our researchers – even when we know that there is no immediate result, but a long term investment in the research process ,” he adds.

Shaw’s determination to see the funds go towards research came after he visited the labs and researchers at the University of Malta, and was guided through all the breakthroughs they’ve made and the plans they have for the future. “But there’s so much more that needs to be done, and RIDT needs more funding to be able to continue its work,” he concludes.

The hard work behind this year’s Teatru Unplugged yielded another successful edition, and the memory of Nirvana still lives on in this incredible endeavor and all that comes out of it. The research is also going at a relentless pace. Nevertheless, funds are continuously needed to ensure it doesn’t cease.

You can be part of this fascinating world of research too, by helping many others achieve their breakthroughs in all the faculties of the University of Malta. Please click here for more information on how to donate to research of this kind through the Research Trust (RIDT).

The Humanity Behind Smart Animal Breeding

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Through the compilation of biological data, scientists and farmers are working together to ensure the health of cattle and pigs, increase the quality of the products derived from them, and to maximise their productivity. Here, Dr George Azzopardi explains how this is being done, and how this system could revolutionise the world as we know it.


There is no denying that farming was the singular most important advancement in the history of the human race. After all, it was the knowledge of the cycle of the seasons and the understanding of how crops grow that first led us to shed our nomadic tendencies and settle down.

The rest, as they say and is so apt in this context, is history.

Yet for the world-changing revolution it spawned, farming remained relatively unchanged for millennia and, apart from a few tricks of the trade picked up by the many generation of farmers that ensued, it was the industrial revolution that truly transformed farming from a manual labour to a machine-dominated world.

Today, technology also plays an important part in the growing of our crops, the rearing of livestock, and the primary (meat, milk) and secondary (leather, animal fat) products that they give us.Yet while all this may be one step further away from Mother Nature, the future has never looked brighter for farmers who live off the land, and the animals those farmers look after.

“The idea behind Smart Animal Breeding with Advanced Machine Learning Techniques is to analyse animals’ biological (genetic markers) and behavioural (e.g. quantity of food per day) data, as well as environmental (e.g. temperature, humidity) type of data, in order to automatically determine certain factors that lead to various circumstances,” explains Dr George Azzopardi, a lecturer at the Department of Intelligent Computer Systems within the ICT Faculty of the University of Malta, and a co-supervisor of a PhD student at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, who is studying Smart Animal Breeding.

“This is done to understand various outcomes, such as what is the best combination of genetics, behaviour and environment that makes a very healthy and productive cow. For the time being, the project is mainly based in the Netherlands, where the dairy industry is particularly important and where farms are already running very advanced systems,” he continues. “These farms are equipped with many sensors that can measure the daily activities of every cow. These include the quality of the milk (by measuring the quantity of proteins and fat, among other things), the number of steps a cow makes every day, how much it drinks and eats, how long it spends chewing, and how long it sits for, for example.”

By understanding the numbers within a context of numerous healthy cows and pigs, in the future, farmers, scientists and veterinarians will be able to tell whether the cow or pig in question is healthy simply through these sensorial observations.

“This modelling technique will also be able to give us early signs of disease and make it easier to treat illness within cattle. Therefore, it will bring the risk of having diseases spreading across a farm, which may lead to devastating results, to a minimum,” he continues. “Of course, this will prove to be vital technology for farms that have thousands of livestock.”

Although the human brain is an enviable intelligent device, it’s not trivial for a human being to determine complicated interactions between many factors. This is where machine learning (a field within Artificial Intelligence) can contribute to applications where a lot of data is available. Machine learning is a term referring to the development of algorithms that are programmed in such a way so as to automatically learn the relationships between the involved components of some given data.

The three farms involved in this project, in fact, have been collecting and storing tonnes of data for the last three years, and there is now enough data to start making sense out of it. The project in which Dr Azzopardi is involved will be investigating and developing machine learning techniques to determine important information from this data.

What is interesting to point out is that this project was initiated by the farmers themselves, who formed a shared consortium with the Dutch government and invested a lot of money in it. In fact, Dr Azzopardi and his colleagues in the Netherlands have received a research grant of approximately €500,000 for this four-year project, which will start in January 2016.

“Yet this project has a lot more potential,” adds Dr Azzopardi. “While we are currently focusing on the animal farming industry, the technology that we will be using is also applicable to other industries, including engineering and healthcare.
In Malta, for example, there are around 40,000 people who suffer from diabetes and who are at risk of developing diabetic retinopathy [when damage occurs to the retina due to diabetes]. Each year, each of those 40,000 people has to have a photo of their retina taken, which amounts to 80,000 pictures that need to be checked manually by professionals.

“Using the same principle, we could teach a machine how to distinguish between a healthy and unhealthy retina, and to simply flag up any pictures that require the attention of a specialist. This will let professionals focus on important cases, and on the treatment of the problem… And this isn’t a farfetched dream, either, as it’s already being implemented abroad,” Dr Azzopardi explains.

Among other things, Dr Azzopardi encourages more Maltese industries to come in contact with the research being carried out in Malta, while he states that “investing in intelligent systems can help maximise performance.”

You can be part of this fascinating world of research, too, by helping many others achieve their breakthroughs in all the faculties of the University of Malta. Please click here for more information on how to donate to research of this kind through the Research Trust (RIDT).