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Aging in Place
Aging in Place

In a lab lit by fluorescent light and perfumed with the faint smell of solder, undergraduate student Shadman Samin is testing a small, rectangular sensor with an electric probe. Looking around the room, one sees the raw materials of high-tech hardware: switches and circuit boards, oscilloscopes and spectrum analyzers, multimeters, function generators, computers and large-panel, high-resolution monitors. It is a “makerspace”—a venue where ideas become something tangible and are then put to the test to prove their functionality. The sensor Samin is working with—a later iteration of that technology could one day be a critical component in a wireless device tasked with monitoring how active an individual is, how frequently they move from place to place, their breathing, or even heartbeat.

The lab is Portland State University’s Biomedical Signal Processing lab in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. Its director is Research Associate Professor Eric Wan, an electrical engineer with expertise in statistical signal processing, machine learning, and the development of algorithms for probabilistic inference. Dr. Wan is also an Adjunct Associate Professor in the Biomedical Engineering Department at Oregon Health & Sciences University (OHSU). He is well-known for developing algorithms (Kalman filters) used in guidance and navigations. His work has been used by the likes of Google in its driverless care and by NASA in vehicles that have traversed the Martian surface. Recently, his research has focused on applying machine learning and signal processing to biomedical engineering. More specifically, he and a former Ph.D. student who is now an Assistant Professor at OHSU have formed a startup company, MotioSens, which is developing remote sensing technologies that track and measure mobility for older adults that live alone or in assisted living facilities.

Biomedical signal processing takes information our bodies broadcast about our health that has been recorded electronically and uses software to analyze that data to gather vital clues about the state of an individual’s overall well-being. It is a powerful tool for disease management, early detection and diagnosis, critical care, and general observation and monitoring. With MotioSens’s application of the technology, an array of sensors installed throughout an older adult’s home can collect data on that person’s movements: which room they’re visiting and when, how long they stay in each place, walking speed, sleeping patterns, and much more. The data can then be processed by smart machines that learn to recognize abnormalities—e.g., a person normally goes to the bathroom twice at night, but in this instance takes five trips; or a person wakes at six each morning and then one morning doesn’t get out of bed. The smart machine would catch the change in behavior and send a notification to a physician, caregiver, friend, or family member. The receiver of the message could proceed from there.

“I think this is a great technology to lend peace of mind to older adults living alone and their families,” Dr. Wan said. “The sensors, which attach to walls and floor boards gather information on general trends: the number of trips someone has made to their bedroom; the time and duration of their visits to the kitchen. If the software recognizes something out of the ordinary, a call will go out directly to the family or care giver.”

According to Dr. Wan, the monitoring system MotioSens has developed is unlike anything else on the market. There are wearable technologies that track mobility, but they only work if users wear them regularly and keep the batteries charged. Another option is video cameras, but they raise privacy issues, particularly when a third party is involved. Infrared sensing technologies have been around for over 30 years, but are inaccurate and produce data at too low a resolution to provide useful information. Other technologies, like contact switches with Bluetooth are useful for monitoring activities like opening a pillbox or refrigerator, but do not communicate information about mobility in general. MotioSens’s suite is the only unobtrusive, high-resolution mobility monitoring system that tracks an individual’s movement through space and time and employs machine learning to determine if there is a need of assistance.

Dr. Wan said the next step is to improve the system’s ability to recognize when there are multiple people in a room. By recognizing and distinguishing individuals within a group, the system could also provide users important information about socialization and other indirect factors that may influence an older adult’s health. In the lab, students like Samin are working on projects and learning about the hardware and software that may soon make it possible not only to detect more than one person in a room, but to determine other information such as body stature, gait characteristics such stride length, or to eventually infer progressive health conditions like cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease.

Dr. Wan’s research and work in the Biomedical Signal Processing Lab is just one example of how researchers at PSU are leveraging university resources like its high-tech facilities, close partnership with OHSU, and throngs of eager and inquisitive students, to enter into health and health-related fields usually associated with medical schools. Combining cloud computing, machine learning, and real-time monitoring, biomedical signal processing is revolutionizing the way individuals, their families, and healthcare providers track overall health. As Dr. Wan noted, an individual’s mobility is an important health indicator for a number of reasons: it tells us how active someone is; it can recognize changing behaviors; let us know how frequently someone is coming and going, and numerous other information points that all come together to paint a picture of how healthy and active someone is. With the population of older adults in Oregon and across the nation growing rapidly, remote sensing technologies will become increasingly important to how individuals, their families, and healthcare providers monitor and maintain their health and lifestyle. Already tested in Portland at locations like the Mirabella Continuing Care Retirement Community and recognized as a finalist in the Oregon Entrepreneur Network’s 2015 Angel Oregon Competition, the technologies developed by MotioSens and Dr. Wan are position to provide older adults living independently comfort and peace of mind.