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Wearables and Health IT Boost Alzheimer’s Research

As Alzheimer’s & Brain Awareness Month comes to a close, we take a look at how new health tech is facilitating pilots around early detection and furthering care.

Alzheimer’s and dementia research has yet to make much headway, but wearables like Fitbit or Garmin’s Vivosmart activity tracker, alongside other mobile technology, could help turn that around.

A precision medicine–related health study by Rhoda Au, a neuropsychologist and professor at Boston University’s School of Medicine and School of Public Health, is using wearable devices to collect large amounts of data from participants over time, eventually flagging potential physical changes that could point to important markers of the disease, R&D Magazine reports.

“The study is a good start to see how these digital technologies can track changes by teasing out different subtypes and improving predictions,” Au told the magazine. “Catching it earlier enough with this technology could expand capacity to find changes in the normal realm for interventions.”

Au’s study, which launched in April and will run through 2020, measures several biological signs, such as sleep, balance and heart rate. It also looks at potential changes in speech patterns. The team has already collected over 75,000 voice recordings for the effort.

Additionally, the study is using a smartphone cognitive application that can measure cognitive performance at home, providing real-time performance tracking, Au told the source.

The study is heavily reliant on the use of technology from private partners, such as IBM Watson. Au noted that private funding truly helped make the study possible.

“Private industry can enable a different kind of science by offering equipment along with financial and professional resources not in the academic environment,” added Au.

Eventually, Au says she wants to move the e-cognitive health initiative even “beyond wearables to in-home devices,” such as the Amazon Echo and Google Nest. By adding these devices, she hopes to gather the most accurate picture possible of a person’s life and what may lead to cognitive impairment in the future.

App Tracks Lifestyle's Impact on Alzheimer's

Meanwhile, taking advantage of the growing use of smartphones and the increasing pool of health apps, a team of researchers has partnered with BrainBaseline, an organization that helps companies run cognitive studies, to launch an app that aims to delve into the correlation between Alzheimer’s and lifestyle, behavior and medical history, MobiHealthNews reports. The app, called Mind Share, was launched via Apple’s ResearchKit software framework to gather data from iPhone and iPad users.

“The study will gather data using clinical surveys and BrainBaseline’s cognitive test suite to look at how behavior, lifestyle, medical history, and other factors affect cognitive function in people with mild cognitive impairment, dementia, or Alzheimer's disease. This research could be important to develop a brief, non-invasive screening instrument for Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, or mild cognitive impairment in the future,” the Mind Share website notes.

Research is becoming increasingly important because currently 5.4 million Americans have a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, the most common form of dementia, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. The disease has no known cure. While research into the disease is ongoing, without a breakthrough, the association reports that the number of Americans aged 65 and older diagnosed with the disease is expected to triple by 2050.

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Jun 28 2017

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