6:41am

Sat April 6, 2013
Health

Wearable sensors could unlock secrets to epilepsy, stress and autism

It’s exactly what it sounds like. "Wearable technology" involves sensors that are worn in something like a bracelet that gather information and sends the data to a computer via Bluetooth. This technology is now being developed for use across a range of health-related applications. New research suggests that it could be used to help prevent seizures in people living with epilepsy.

“We build sensors that allow people to measure information from the surface of their skin, and this information changes with your activity, with your stress, with your sleep,” said MIT professor Rosalind Picard. Picard says she and her team discovered that the technology can recognize 100 percent of large epileptic seizures through changes in the skin by accident.

“We were quite surprised one day when we looked at the data and the biggest peak I’ve ever seen in my whole life was present. I thought the sensor was broken. And it turned out it was a seizure in a small boy,” says Picard. “Since then we have done careful, controlled studies and we have 100 percent of grand mal seizures showing enormous responses on the skin sensor.”

Seizure prevention

Picard says that detecting minute changes in the surface of the skin via these sensors can give advance warning of seizures. Previously this has only been possible through invasive techniques. 

“The unique thing is now we have an outwardly readable signature of something that previously you basically had to have depth electrodes in the brain to get,” she said.

And Picard says just knowing when a small seizure occurs can be valuable.

“We also have found that the size of those responses relates to a very important change in the brain that is believed to be a very dangerous situation. So now we’re quite interested in getting a version of this wrist band developed that can alert people to when this particular kind of response is happening.”

Picard says that this change can occur in short seizures. She says in these cases, the danger lies in the fact that short seizures are less apparent to outside observers and can go undetected in patients, despite them still causing damage.

She says the wearable technology could alert someone to the fact that they may need to seek treatment.

And now Picard and her team are looking at the possibility of treating epileptic seizures before they happen using the same wearable technology, as well as early medication techniques.

She says their discovery with the seizures has spurred interest in researching early detection of other conditions like migraines.

“It would be fascinating to look at this data with migraines. We know that the sympathetic nervous system responds to pain and anxiety. And we are in the middle of studies showing some very interesting, significant changes we can measure related to both certain kinds of pain, and certain kinds of pain treatment. It’s a very rich area to continue getting the data, now that it’s easy to get,” Picard said.

The new-age stress ball

The technology also has applications for measuring stress and helping people to know how to lower their stress levels in certain situations, Picard says.

“Some people have great awareness of the changes going on inside them, but I would say most of us could improve in that area.”

“When you start to learn what it feels like for your skin conductance to change, and you become aware of subtle things in your world that make it change, it really gives you a new ability to understand yourself and respond to situations a bit more willfully.”

She says that even things like road rage could be addressed simply through drivers learning to sense when their stress levels are peaking, and could choose consciously to lower them.

Communication aid for people with autism

So far, Picard has worked mainly with its ability to recognize and breakdown emotions through slight changes in skin surface.

This has large implications in the area of emotional communication for individuals with autism.

“We can sometimes be surprised by what we see on the outside being quite different than what we measure on the inside."

Picard says that being able to break down the inner emotions of an autistic child may help parents, teachers and peers to understand what outward behaviors really mean.

She says the ability to recognize emotions through changes in the skin can be helpful for individuals both on and off the autistic spectrum.

For more from the Innovation Trail, visit their website.

The Innovation Trail is a collaboration between six upstate New York public media outlets. The initiative, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), helps the public gain a better understanding of the connection between technological breakthroughs and the revitalization of the upstate New York economy.

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