Editorial Feature

Portable Sensors are Bringing in a New Era of Medical Technologies

The proliferation of devices using portable sensors is revolutionizing healthcare today. Portable sensor technology progressed rapidly in the last few years, and most of its new applications are in medicine. In today’s wearables, portable sensors and actuating devices combine with the latest tech for information processing and connectivity.

Portable Sensors are Bringing in a New Era of Medical Technologies

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Wearable devices for health monitoring provide people with the ability to measure important biological markers continuously, in a non-invasive and non-intrusive fashion, and then seamlessly integrate this data with advanced information technology.

Recent technological progress has delivered a step-change in miniaturized, low-power, flexible electronics and sensors. Measurements that just a few decades ago were performed in expensive body-sized machines can now be obtained with wristwatches and smartphones.

This article summarizes some of the latest developments in wearable devices using cutting-edge portable sensors.

Predicting Alzheimer’s Disease with Walking Data

The speed, symmetry, and length of people’s gait – their steps – is a reliable indicator of Alzheimer’s disease and its progression in the body. Gait measurements have been part of clinical analysis and treatment of Alzheimer’s for some time, but recent advances in wearable sensor technology mean that patients can now monitor their gait continually throughout their daily lives.

Smartphones and watches, as well as dedicated wearables, can all capture gait measurements now and feed them to a database. Artificial intelligence (AI) software can scrape this data to help inform people and their caregivers about how Alzheimer’s might be progressing.

Sensing Sweat Helps Athletes to Train and Perform Perfectly

A recent paper in the journal Science Advances describes one group’s efforts to create a waterproof sweat sensor that can attach to athletes’ bodies like a bandage. Researchers developed a sensor patch that collects the wearer’s sweat while they are exercising in any environment – even while they are swimming.

The wearable device alerts the athlete of key time windows for rehydrating with water and replacing lost electrolytes. Pores on the underside of the bandage wick sweat through the sensor device and measure how much sweat is passing through. Knowing this, plus the wearer’s weight and some other metrics, is enough to estimate levels of nutrients like electrolytes.

Detecting Cancer Cells in the Blood with a Wearable Device

A team of scientists at the University of Michigan (United States) developed a wearable device for collecting and analyzing so-called circulating tumor cells (CTCs) in blood. The device is worn on the wrist and scans patients’ blood for a few hours while they are wearing it.

The researchers published the results of their study in a recent issue of Nature Communications. They describe how their novel device could eradicate the need for obtaining and processing physical blood samples, and improve the rates and outcomes for cancer treatment.

Combining Wearable Sensors with AI to Diagnose Heart Diseases

In research published recently in the journal npj Digital Medicine, scientists demonstrated a new method for detecting cardiovascular (heart) disease using a wearable sensor worn on the wrist.

The device was developed to find a condition known as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, which often goes unnoticed. However, untreated, the condition can have grave health implications.

The research utilized a machine learning approach from artificial intelligence along with passive data collection from a wearable sensor. This method benefits from being widely available and is non-invasive, and could be a highly effective tool for diagnosing hypertrophic cardiomyopathy early.

Wearable Sensors for Elderly Care

Finding effective but efficient ways to look after our elderly populations is an increasingly pressing problem worldwide. The gradual but continual increase in life expectancy in countries over the last few decades (achieved mostly thanks to significant developments in medicine and public health) and decreasing birth rates are causing demographic imbalances globally.

This means that there are often more elderly people requiring care than there are young people to care for them.

But wearable devices using portable sensors might hold the answer to this problem. Cost-effective, easy-to-use platforms combining wearable wearables with smart devices and domestic Internet of Things (IoT) technology could make independent living safer and more practical for elderly people in the near future.

As well as wearable sensors on people’s bodies, portable sensors in this context can also include small, low-cost sensor platforms to monitor people inside the house. These can detect falls or alert family or friends if they do not sense movement when they should.

Next Steps for Portable Sensor Technology

Wearable devices will continue to develop in the next few decades. Reducing signal-to-noise ratios for systems like wearable electrocardiogram (ECD) devices is a current avenue for research. This will reduce motion artifact effects that come with poor signal-to-noise ratios and lead to more accurate analyses.

Future wearables will also feature the latest information processing and connectivity hardware. The market for information technology is explosive, and hardware upgrades turn it on its head every few years. Portable sensors and wearable devices will likely follow the same steep, sharp progression.

Continue reading: How Skin-Integrated Sensors Could Improve Infant Health Outcomes

References and Further Reading

Carfagno, J. (2019). 5 New and Emerging Wearable Medical Devices. DocWireNews.com. [Online] Available at: https://www.docwirenews.com/docwire-pick/future-of-medicine-picks/top-5-wearable-medical-devices/

Green, E. M. et al. (2019). Machine learning detection of obstructive hypertrophic cardiomyopathy using a wearable biosensor. npj Digital Medicine. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41746-019-0130-0.

Kim, T. H. et al. (2019). A temporary indwelling intravascular aphaeretic system for in vivo enrichment of circulating tumor cells. Nature Communications. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-019-09439-9.

Majumder, S., T. Mondal, and M. J. Deen (2017). Wearable Sensors for Remote Health Monitoring. Sensors. Available at: https://doi.org/10.3390/s17010130.

Reeder, J. T., et al. (2019). Waterproof, electronics-enabled, epidermal microfluidic devices for sweat collection, biomarker analysis, and thermography in aquatic settings. Applied Sciences and Engineering. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1126/sciadv.aau6356.

Seshadri, D. R., et al. (2019). Wearable sensors for monitoring the physiological and biochemical profile of the athlete. npj Digital Medicine. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41746-019-0150-9.

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Ben Pilkington

Written by

Ben Pilkington

Ben Pilkington is a freelance writer who is interested in society and technology. He enjoys learning how the latest scientific developments can affect us and imagining what will be possible in the future. Since completing graduate studies at Oxford University in 2016, Ben has reported on developments in computer software, the UK technology industry, digital rights and privacy, industrial automation, IoT, AI, additive manufacturing, sustainability, and clean technology.


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