Intel funds IT projects to ease life with Alzheimer’s

Canadian researchers say they will use grants offered through Intel Corp. and the Alzheimer’s Association to develop technology that will make life easier for those coping with the disease.

Through their Everyday Technologies for Alzheimer Care (ETAC) initiative, the two organizations have awarded five three-year grants, including two to the University of Toronto. The Alzheimer’s Association and Intel established ETAC last summer, promising US$200,000 annually over the three-year period, said William Thies, vice-president and scientific affairs at the Alzheimer’s Association.

Intel’s involvement is one facet of the chip manufacturer’s health research program, aimed at using technology to assist ill and aging people, said Kari Skoog, a spokesperson for Intel.

One grant goes to Alex Mihailidis, an assistant professor of occupational therapy at the University of Toronto, whose work focuses on using technology to help Alzheimer’s patients with everyday tasks.

“Basically what we’re doing is developing an intelligent environment,” Mihailidis said. “At this point it’s in the washroom.” To start with Mihailidis is focusing on the process of washing one’s hands. His system can observe an Alzheimer’s patient’s movements and provide verbal prompts if the person appears confused.

A camera mounted above the sink can recognize the patient’s movements as he or she turns taps on and off, reaches for soap or a towel and so on. If the patient misses a step, a computer can play a digitized audio prompt such as “turn off the tap.” For patients who need them, the prompts can provide more detailed instructions. Mihailidis is also exploring the use of video prompts that would show the patients how to perform an action. The system is designed to adjust itself to the patient’s needs, providing less or more prompting depending on the level of dementia.

Mihailidis plans to adapt the system to help patients use the toilet, and said it could be applied to other household tasks. The ETAC grant money will help buy equipment and pay graduate students working on the project, he said.

Two other University of Toronto researchers, Ronald Baecker of the Department of Computer Science and Elsa Marziali of the Faculty of Social Work, received funding to explore using video and animation to enhance the current Internet-based support tools for caregivers.

Other grants went to Alan Newell of Britain’s Dundee University, who is developing a system based on digital television to remind Alzheimer’s patients of daily activities; to Diane Mahoney of the Hebrew Rehabilitation Center for the Aged in Boston to research the needs and wants of caregivers and health professionals regarding home monitoring and adapt her home monitoring system for use in institutions; and to Adrian Leibovici of the University of Rochester to investigate how monitoring devices such as pedometers and wireless sensors can help evaluate dementia symptoms.

“They are all exactly in the mold that we anticipated,” Thies said of the projects. “That is, they are using technology that exists currently, pretty much off the shelf, to try to look for novel ways to manage people with Alzheimer’s Disease.”

The program recognizes that existing technology markets are maturing and that as the population ages, older people will constitute an increasingly attractive market for technology. “There are opportunities here to use technology inside one’s home or in an assisted living facility … to help these people live better, more independent lives, ” Skoog said.

Along with the ETAC intitiative, Skoog said, Intel is backing the Center for Aging Services Technology (CAST), a Washington, D.C.-based group that is lobbying the U.S. government for policies that would promote increased use of technology to help older people.

Comment: info@itbusiness.ca

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