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Engineering brings hope: early detection of dementia using wireless sensors

The worldwide prevalence of dementia is expected to increase by 85% in the next 20 years and triple by 2050. Engineering professor Patrick Chiang is collaborating with colleagues in OSU’s Center for Healthy Aging Research to find solutions for early detection.

Improving early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s Disease and other types of dementia is important for patients and their families. The conventional approach to understanding and monitoring the diseases of aging is periodic assessment through physical exams, neurological evaluations and cognitive and lab tests. This approach provides a very coarse and limited snapshot of the subtle changes that occur with aging and their effects.  However, by leveraging the benefits of consumer electronics technology, such as that used in modern cellphones it will be soon possible to build miniature wireless devices that can unobtrusively monitor human health with low cost, size, and battery dissipation.

Patrick Chiang, Assistant Professor in the College of Engineering and Computer Sciences, is developing wireless devices that are body worn and non-invasive, thereby enabling continuous monitoring of a variety of vital signs that are important in both observing aging as well as providing clues for intervention, such as pharmaceuticals, vitamins, and exercise.  For example, working with colleagues at OHSU’s Oregon Center on Aging and Technology (ORCATECH), next-generation accelerometers/gyroscopes will enable tracking 3D movement patterns of elderly adults as they move around their homes. With a small wireless transceiver, preliminary data shows the ability to achieve 6-10cm distance resolution of two patients walking within their home.  This movement tracking technology may enable early diagnosis of dementia, as well as continuous safety monitoring for falling and other concerns.

More recently, Professor Chiang and his students began working with Professor Tory Hagen of the Linus Pauling Institute to monitor the effects of lipoic acid on aging with a small clinical trial of elderly volunteers from the LIFE Registry. For 6 weeks, volunteers will carry a 1-inch square wireless patch over the chest region.  Using non-contact capacitive sensing, this minute sensor can capture heart ECG and respiration data without physically touching the skin.  Furthermore, on-board accelerometer data will grab general activity of the volunteer, providing clues into the effects of Lipoic Acid and other vitamins on their general activity level.

Dr. Chiang is a member of the Gerontechnology Core at the Center for Healthy Aging Research and is a recipient of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Early Career Research Award. The research award allows students to use next-generation, experimental fabrication in order to build energy-efficient prototypes, similar to what is used in modern cellphones. The group is focused on health monitoring wireless systems and similar veins related to low-power microchip research.

See more about Patrick Chiang’s research