Keeping Grandma Safe and Healthy with Biosensors

12/02/03    Portland, Ore.

OHSU researcher receives grant to monitor seniors' movements at two senior homes.

Keeping grandma safe and healthy may someday be as simple as using a tiny sensor that can reliably track her movements. An Oregon Health & Science University professor recently received $300,000 from Intel Corporation to create new ways of using sensing technology to detect cognitive impairment and dementia in elderly adults. The technology may someday help seniors maintain their cognitive abilities and provide added peace of mind for family members worried about their loved one's health and well-being.

Misha Pavel, Ph.D., a professor in OHSU's OGI School of Science & Engineering, is the principal investigator of the three-year study that includes a multidisciplinary group of OHSU researchers. Pavel, Jeffrey Kaye, Ph.D., professor of neurology in the OHSU School of Medicine, and director of the Layton Aging and Alzheimer's Disease Center at OHSU and the Portland VA Medical Center, and their team will use simple, intelligent biosensors to continuously and unobtrusively monitor seniors' movements. Early studies will be conducted at Elite Care, a private senior home in Milwaukie, Ore., and at Calaroga Terrace Retirement Community in northeast Portland.

During the study, the intelligent sensors -- equipped with sophisticated information processing and communication capabilities -- will be located in areas common to seniors, as well as within infrared badges worn by the Elite Care seniors involved.

"The sensors will constantly and quietly relay information to a computer that can help us reliably determine the regular movement of each senior within the project," said Pavel, an experimental psychologist in the OGI school's Department of Biomedical Engineering. "For example, if a senior who never takes a walk suddenly leaves the building, the sensor may be invaluable in alerting caregivers to a subtle, but important cognitive change, as well as avert a potential danger in the senior getting lost or harmed."

Pavel and his colleagues, with support from Portland, Ore.-based Spry Learning, also plan to develop and test a variety of easy-to-use computer games with Calaroga residents to monitor trends in cognitive function over time, and enhance and maintain a defined set of cognitive capabilities.

Pavel is testing his sensors, systems and algorithms in a lab on the Hillsboro, Ore., campus designed to look like a senior's living area. For example, the lab has a chair that can sense someone sitting on it and a bed that monitors a person's movements and sleeping positions -- information that may eventually provide clues to a senior's safety and well-being. Motion detectors are positioned throughout the "living area" of Pavel's lab to track seniors' comings and goings.

Pavel hopes additional funding down the road will enable him to coordinate field tests with seniors still living in single-family homes.

Though research into intelligent biosensors is a growing field, this is the only known study focusing on biosensors for home health care.

Older adults are at high risk for cognitive impairment and dementia. Dementia occurs in 10 percent to 16 percent of seniors older than 75 and in up to 50 percent of those 85 or older. For people with mild cognitive impairment (for example, significant memory loss, but not dementia), the risk of developing dementia is as high as 50 percent within five years of being diagnosed. Unless physicians and other health care providers are alert to cognitive changes in their elderly patients, many cases of dementia will go undetected, which can lead to seniors getting lost, falling or failing to get treatment.

According to the U.S. Healthcare Financing Administration, home care is the largest growing segment of health care. Experts believe that care for the elderly will increasingly be provided in homes and in low-skill care facilities as opposed to institutions.

Pavel is an expert in signal processing, statistical pattern recognition and model-based information fusion. His co-investigators include: Katherine Wild, Ph.D., assistant professor of neurology in the OHSU School of Medicine, who will lead the cognitive testing and evaluate the effects of dementia; Holly Jimison, Ph.D., assistant professor of medical informatics and clinical epidemiology in the OHSU School of Medicine, who will lead the effort on adaptive computer games for monitoring trends in performance; Linda Boise, Ph.D., M.P.H., director of education at OHSU's Layton Aging and Alzheimer's Disease Center, who will consult on the interaction with caregivers and provide clinical guidance; Tamara Hayes, Ph.D., assistant professor of biomedical engineering, who will lead the system design and data management research; and Kaye, who will provide overarching clinical guidance on the project.

"Health care for the chronically ill and elderly is rapidly draining national health care dollars," said Pavel, "and this trend is only expected to worsen as baby boomers hit retirement age."

"These kinds of embedded technologies that can be easily incorporated into everyday life are going to start becoming very important to baby boomers who want the best quality of life possible as they age. Family members also will appreciate the home health care technologies that are on the horizon for added peace of mind about their loved one's health and well-being. And caregivers will appreciate the enhanced services they will be able to offer. Technologies for home health care are going to be a win-win situation for everyone."

OGI's Department of Biomedical Engineering began offering graduate degrees in the fall of 2003. The department has 13 full-time faculty with research emphases in biomedical optics, cardiovascular bioengineering, genetic engineering, imaging, informatics, neuroengineering, point-of-care biomedical engineering, rehabilitation and biomechanics, tissue engineering, and biomaterials.

For more information about biomedical engineering courses at OHSU's OGI School of Science & Engineering, go to

The OGI School of Science & Engineering (formerly the Oregon Graduate Institute of Science & Technology) became one of four schools of the Oregon Health & Science University in 2001 (see