Researchers bring wireless sensor technology for elderly into 'living laboratories'

By Molly Merrill
09:47 AM

A wearable sensor for monitoring the elderly will soon be made available to long-term care facilities to aid in fall prevention.

Researchers from the University of Virginia's School of Engineering, School of Medicine and Department of Psychology, in partnership with the U.Va. Institute on Aging's Translational Research Consortium and AFrame Digital, Inc., a health monitoring and medical alert products company based in Falls Church, Va., are collaborating on the project.

Researchers will use data from the long-term care facilities to test and refine the technology.

"We are breaking barriers between the research world and long-term care facilities," said Donna Hearn, assistant chairwoman at U.Va.'s Department of Psychology. "What we are doing will make a difference on the ground and in healthcare costs."

The tool, being developed at U.Va., will aid in the identification of problems that may result in falls. Connected to a wireless network set up by AFrame Digital, the sensors will provide researchers with real-time data on the nursing home residents' gaits.

Researchers are working to commercialize a product that will allow geriatricians to assess gait problems and provide interventions – such as a walker – before a fall happens.

"This project presented a prime opportunity for our researchers to work with AFrame," said Tony Kinn, director of corporate relations at the U.Va. Engineering Foundation. "We are bringing the talents and resources of U.Va. to bear against an issue that will benefit many groups – researchers who are developing the technology, a company that can help commercialize it and, ultimately, older adults who will enjoy safer and healthier lives."

John Lach, an associate professor in the Charles L. Brown Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, has been researching and developing wireless body sensors for five years. In this application, sensors can be worn like a wristwatch. Using parameters determined in a gait laboratory directed by D. Casey Kerrigan, a professor in the School of Medicine's Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, Lach has developed sensors that can quantitatively measure the walking patterns that are likely to lead to falls.

Lach's sensors, now about the size of a digital watch face, can measure and transmit data on a wide range of human motion, including linear acceleration – or how fast patients move in a straight path – and rotational rate, which together provide six degrees of freedom motion capture. The sensors are in their third generation of development and, due to the living laboratory model, tshould evolve with faster prototyping cycles that use continuous feedback from the patients.

"We are moving research from the lab to a living environment," said Regina Carlson, director of development for the Institute on Aging. "Ultimately, we will gain better research data in these settings."