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New Sensor-Based Care Approach for Personalized Dementia Therapy

Dementia is an age-related illness that is turning out to be more widespread as demographics change. It affects mainly people over the age of 80, with this group accounting for more than 70% of all dementia sufferers. Patient care is a huge challenge for families and caregivers, particularly since, in a majority of cases, important health data lacks any beneficial structure and is not available when it is necessary.

Sample view of a shape-adapted electronic layout in the wristband. (Credit: © Fraunhofer IZM/Volker Mai)

It is expected that a miniaturized, modular measurement and advisory system being created in a collaborative project that includes Fraunhofer scientists will soon simplify this situation. The system uses unobtrusive sensors to automatically measure dementia patients’ health and care data and proposes personalized treatment options based on their present condition.

Presently, there are approximately 1.6 million dementia patients in Germany; two-thirds of this group suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. Annually, about 300,000 new cases are diagnosed. Dementia develops gradually, which makes it hard to recognize the disease or to differentiate it from other changes that generally occur as one ages. Those affected become progressively helpless and must depend on care. When the disease is diagnosed as early as possible, then better care can be given to the patient and there is more room for influencing the progression of the disease.

An early warning system provides greater security in patient care

Presently, however, documentation of patient care data lacks any beneficial structure, so key information that could activate preventive measures is often not available when it is required. Researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Reliability and Microintegration IZM in Berlin, in partnership with associates from industry and research, thus inaugurated the PYRAMID project. This project aimed at developing a new care method aimed at stabilizing and enhancing the quality of life of people with dementia and their families and, working diligently with caregivers and doctors, offering better patient security: a miniaturized, modular measurement and advisory device in the form of a wristband automatically captures the vital health and care data of the dementia patient with unobtrusive, hardly perceptible sensors.

Based on the data it gathers, it then proposes and implements tailored treatment and care options for the patient.  

The goal is to discreetly accompany patients over the course of years, from the first tentative diagnosis through to clinical treatment, to put up-to-date information at their fingertips, increase patient autonomy and give them the opportunity to stay in their familiar environment for as long as possible.

Erik Jung, Physicist, The Fraunhofer IZM

With the new measurement system, any worsening in a patient’s condition can be captured or predicted in good time and the pertinent information given to caregivers.

Sensors record vital signs and movement patterns

The system measures vital signs, such as body temperature and heart rate, as well as skin resistance and heart rate variability. It also records external parameters such as brightness, outdoor temperature, and volume level. Furthermore, the wristband records patients’ movement patterns. If, for example, a patient barely moves at all anymore, or no longer goes out of his or her home, this advises that the dementia is progressing.

Along with the parameters the wearable technology records, questionnaires filled in by family members are examined and integrated into the diagnosis. All data is encrypted in keeping with telemedicine guidelines and observing data protection regulations and conveyed via Bluetooth to a documentation system, then made available — via a mobile app, for example — to all the people involved in the care process.

The measurement system is completely integrated into a wristband that inconspicuously houses all the electronics and sensors. A microcontroller records the data, and a Bluetooth module, a rechargeable battery, a USB port, and an NFC antenna that serves as an automatic door opener round out the system. The Fraunhofer IZM scientists in the project are commissioned with implementing the hardware, choosing the multifunctional measurement components, and microintegrating the sensors. Concept and design studies have already been concluded and a demonstrator is presently being built.

The first design demonstrators have already undergone testing and were well received by patients. Further tests on volunteers will be conducted later this year. We are confident that the measurement system will enhance patient care, improve cooperation among everyone involved and ensure that emergency situations — such as when a patient falls — are detected sooner.

Erik Jung

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