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Wearable tech will help people manage multiple sclerosis

U of A researchers, precision health company team up to develop sensor small enough to wear behind the ear but powerful enough to reduce costly hospital visits.

  • October 14, 2020
  • By Michael Brown

University of Alberta researchers are teaming up with a precision-health innovator to develop a low-cost wearable sensor to help people suffering from chronic neurologic conditions treat their illness remotely, while reducing the frequency and costs of hospital visits.

Hossein Rouhani, an assistant professor in the Faculty of Engineering and primary investigator in the Neuromuscular Control and Biomechanics Laboratory, said health-care provider lockdowns triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic have highlighted the significant benefits of wearable devices that can expand virtual health care and remote patient monitoring for many different medical conditions.

“We saw how hospitals become a hub during events like COVID-19, so it's better to minimize the number of people referred to hospitals,” said Rouhani. “It's also the future of monitoring neurodegenerative diseases.”

PROTXX, which has offices in Calgary and Silicon Valley, developed a wearable sensor that fits behind the ear. The sensor technology it uses is similar to accelerometers and gyroscopes found in smartphones and tablets. These electromechanical devices enable non-invasive monitoring and measuring of neurological, sensory and musculoskeletal impairments.

“The proposed technology can be life-saving for both patients and health-care workers, and significantly reduce direct and indirect health-care costs while improving health outcomes,” he said.

Rouhani explained that his lab is responsible for the development of machine learning algorithms that can turn the raw data from the sensors into clinically relevant information.

Rouhani said the new version of the device will be used to help patients who have suffered stroke or spinal cord injury, or have multiple sclerosis (MS), an autoimmune inflammatory disease that may cause progressive disability in functions in the central nervous system.

“We can detect some physiological change in the motion pattern of individuals with MS, and we can use it as a sort of biomarker to detect the effect of MS,” he said.

Not only will MS patients benefit from remote health monitoring, the device—which also replaces the need for expensive, bulky equipment—can detect early signs of symptoms such as decreased mobility, loss of balance and change in activity level, and communicate them to health-care providers while providing patients with feedback to minimize their visit to hospitals.

Early detection is particularly important as the prevalence of MS in Canada is among the highest reported in the world. StatsCan reports that MS is affecting more than 100,000 Canadians and costing the Canadian health-care system close to $1 billion annually. Moreover, MS is on the rise in Canada, predominantly among women, and is the leading cause of neurological disability among people aged 20 to 40.

“MS is a very high-priority due to its high incidence in Alberta and across Canada, as well as its high impact on the function and quality of life in persons with MS,” said Chester Ho, director of the division of physical medicine and rehabilitation, professor in the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry and member of the Neuroscience and Mental Health Insititute. Ho, a co-lead investigator, will lead the testing of the device.

"This is a very timely investigation into the application of remote personalized health monitoring in rehabilitation medicine, starting with MS patients here in Edmonton, but with significant opportunities to enhance health-care outcomes for other important rehab populations such as stroke and concussion.”

The U of A and PROTXX were awarded a Mitacs Accelerate grant to support post-doctoral research fellows participating in the project in 2020-2021.

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