Wearable Devices May Help Detect Alzheimer’s Early

Wearable sensors that detect changes in the way you walk could be crucial in detecting Alzheimer’s at an early stage, suggests study

While we may not have a lot of experience in dealing with Alzheimer’s Disease, we know enough to understand that it’s a very serious medical condition. Being diagnosed with the disease is not only life-altering for the patient, but also for his or her family and friends. The Alzheimer’s Association reports that over four million Indians suffer from some form of dementia, while the worldwide figures are over ten times that number.

Every little piece of diagnostic information helps when dealing with such a prevalent threat to mental health. Researchers at Newcastle University in the UK seem to have come up with a way to potentially diagnose Alzheimer’s early, and even monitor its progress.  Time to find out more...

What Is Alzheimer’s Disease?

It’s caused by the build up of proteins in your brain in the form of structures called ‘plaques’ and ‘tangles’. These in turn lead to the loss of connections between nerve cells, and may ultimately cause their death accompanied by the loss of brain tissue. As a result, the person’s thinking, memory, and behaviour, all are affected adversely.

Alzheimer’s is a progressive disease, which means that an increasing number of parts of the person’ brain are damaged over time. More symptoms keep developing, and they also become more severe. As the disease progresses, the person may also begin to have other problems, such as those related to thinking and walking.

The Breakthrough

Clinical biomarkers such as changes in walking characteristics and behaviours are considered as key factors indicating early warning signs of dementia. The pilot study that was carried out at Newcastle University indicates that wearing sensors on the body can be helpful in diagnosing Alzheimer’s at an early stage. Lynn Rochester, professor of Human Movement Science at the university said, “Wearable sensors at home and in the clinic have the potential to change dementia research. The ability to assess gait and walking behaviours in all aspects of life is a major step forward in data collection.” 

Expanding on the implications of their findings, she added, “Free-living gait analysis at home is particularly useful as it allows objective observation of an individual’s day-to-day activity. It also has the benefit of providing continuous data over a prolonged time that may be more sensitive than one-off assessments.”

The Research

In the study, 20 patients suffering from early Alzheimer’s across six centres from the National Institute for Health Research Translational Research Collaboration in Dementia initiative were monitored. Participants used a small wearable sensor on their lower back and carried out walking tasks in the laboratory. They continued wearing the sensor at home for a week while performing daily tasks. 

Based on the findings, the researchers concluded that walking behaviour and pattern, and gait characteristics such as the pace, timing, variability and asymmetry of walking can offer clinically appropriate measures.

The Result

Part of the Deep and Frequent Phenotyping Project, the study does require further validation of results that show free-living gait as a potential marker for dementia diagnosis. However, these sensors could possibly provide crucial diagnostic information at a very early stage, which could give doctors the chance to treat the disease early. This will be vital in preventing damage to people's memory and thinking. 

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