OHSU Center Developing 'Living Laboratory' To Track Aging

02/16/05    Portland, Ore.


Improving independence by 24/7 monitoring of cognitive changes is high-tech effort's goal

Everyone wants to age gracefully. Now, Oregon Health & Science University researchers are taking advantage of a unique combination of clinical expertise and emerging, home-based technologies to learn more about how people can age successfully.

Through a unique collaboration of university and industry experts, the goal is to create, within the community, a "living laboratory" in which cognitive and key functional changes in residents can be inconspicuously tracked in real time with the help of in-home, unobtrusive monitoring equipment and other data collection techniques.

The site for research is not the traditional, sterile academic university-based laboratory, but the community itself, consisting of seniors' homes and retirement residences throughout the Portland metropolitan area.

The project is an initiative of the Oregon Roybal Center for Aging, Technology, Education and Community Health, or ORCATECH, led by the Layton Aging & Alzheimer's Disease Center in the OHSU School of Medicine and the OHSU OGI School of Science & Engineering's Department of Biomedical Engineering. It will use emerging technologies to monitor a range of key functions in the home to help scientists determine, in real time, how people age and interact with the community.

Jeffrey Kaye, M.D., professor of neurology and biomedical engineering, and the center's director, is leading the multidisciplinary effort, which involves university, technology industry and social service representatives, that is seeking to improve independence and health of the elderly.

"The living laboratory is essentially the concept that the homes in the community become the laboratory," Kaye said. "By taking our research out of the formal, artificial laboratory environment, we hope to make the research apply to those active in the community. It is an ongoing, rapidly reflective way of doing research such that the research model itself comes alive, if you will."

He said that several important test sites, such as a planned South Waterfront senior development and the region's other progressive retirements communities, "provide a unique opportunity to design, from the ground up, the best environments in which people can age successfully."

Among first-year pilot projects are: a test of prototype software for monitoring computer interactions of seniors in their home environments to detect cognitive decline; a study of novel techniques assessing seniors' mobility in real life by fusing data gathered through unobtrusive, ubiquitous sensing and computing technology; and a study of in-home monitoring needs and expectations of seniors and their family members, as well as optimal communication channels and formats of monitoring data for these individuals.

The center's focal point will be the living laboratory. Motion sensors will be placed throughout select volunteers homes, and even drawers, cupboards and refrigerator doors will be equipped with contact sensors and switches to help researchers calculate participants' total daily activity and speed with which activities are performed. Residents also will have access to computers providing a variety of activities such as e-mail, health information and games that have been modified to monitor and detect cognitive change.

"The systems use many diverse technologies and techniques - motion sensors, and computer learning and wireless technology - so that information is least obtrusively recorded," Kaye said. "These systems can be installed in a person's home and allow us to begin to assess key changes that our prior aging studies have shown are sensitive to predicting potential cognitive decline or dementia."

For example, a person's physical activity and walking speed may be an early sign of a number of problems, ranging from Parkinson's disease to Alzheimer's. Similarly, typing speed, or even average daily computer use, may indicate subtle cognitive changes. Kaye said only styles of computer interaction, and not content of computers, will be monitored.

"Home assessment affords the opportunity to see real changes that are not an artifact of the standard laboratory setting," Kaye said.

The new center is funded by a five-year, $1.7 million grant from the National Institute on Aging. It's one of six new Roybal Centers for Research on Applied Gerontology, joining four others established after Congress authorized funding for the program, named after Edward R. Roybal, former chairman of the House Select Committee on Aging, in 1993. The centers are designed to move promising social and behavioral basic research findings out of the laboratory and into programs, practices and policies that improve the lives of older people and the capacity of society to adapt to aging.

The Roybal Center at OHSU, using the living laboratory concept as a model, is encompassed in two core programs: The first, a management and administrative core, will oversee the center's operation with the help of an executive committee of representatives from the partner organizations, and it will organize an international meeting focused on using technology for healthy aging; the second, a pilot core, will award competitive, peer-reviewed grant proposals for research each year.

ORCATECH's academic partners include the Center for Healthy Aging, the Center for Ethics in Health Care, and Oregon National Primate Research Center, OHSU. Industry partners are Intel Corp., Spry Learning Co., General Electric Co., Elite Care Retirement Homes, and Hewlett-Packard Co. Aging resource community partners include the Oregon Alliance of Senior and Health Services, Carewheels, and the Center for Aging Services Technologies (CAST).