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Alzheimer's device shows promise; funding uncertain

There are robots that follow those with Alzheimer's disease around, issuing reminders; pill boxes that speak; wristwatches holding entire medical histories; and alarms in patients' sneakers to alert authorities that they are wandering the streets in confusion.

Now students from Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering in Needham have come up with MindScout, a device to allow more independence to people with Alzheimer's, that incorporates some of the best features of devices that might not be affordable (that robot costs $20,000). It can, for example, be programmed to answer specific questions over and over again.

Beyond helping the patients, the technology is also designed to give caregivers a respite from the constant vigilance that can take a toll on their own health. There are questions, though, about whether MindScout will reach the market, now that its creators have graduated and moved on. And advocates in the field are looking for funding to continue the development.

"The assignment was to create a device to help people with early stage Alzheimer's remain independent," said Alison E. Lee, 21, of Kirtland, Ohio, who served as coordinator of the team of six seniors. With one member from Wellesley College (Olin has partnerships with Wellesley, Babson, and Brandeis), the team took on the enterprise as their final project and graduated last spring in the five-year-old engineering school's second class. Lee has since gone to South Korea to teach and study on a Fulbright scholarship.

Voice activated

The device consists of a computer-like screen and a keyboard that would sit on a surface in the area the patient spends the most time. The keyboard is left out of sight. The computer can store a patient's schedule and deliver voice-activated prompts and answer specific questions out loud and in text on the screen.

The timing seems right for the invention. Many baby boomers can see the effects of Alzheimer's in their own families and there appears to be a growing market for programs to keep brains active and otherwise stave off the disease, whose cause remains unknown. According to the Alzheimer's Association, nearly half of all Americans older than 85 have the degenerative disease. It also affects about 20 percent of those ages 75 to 85, and 2 percent of people 65 to 74.

In its year-long project, the Olin group spent time with patients and their caretakers in support groups at the Massachusetts Alzheimer's Association offices in Watertown, and also at Whitney Place, an assisted living residence in Natick.

The students settled on an idea that seemed most helpful to patients and practical to bring to market, said Lee. In the second semester, they created a model.

"We bought a touch screen, a processor, and components," said Lee. "We wrote the software using GUIs [graphic user interfaces] that change the screens for schedules and reminders."

The promise it represents is technology that could feasibly be incorporated into a device small enough for someone to hang from his neck.

"This is my favorite part," said Lee. "The care partner can record a reminder. 'Ralph take your medicine' is saved as a sound file, so the Alzheimer's patient hears his wife's voice. And then it converts the speech to text, so he can actually see the message. Kinda cool."

She also pointed out that only the screen is visible to the patient, because the students felt that seeing the other equipment could be confusing and stressful. Only the care partners use the keyboard.

Personal stake

Like other students in the group, Lee has a grandparent with the disease and had a personal stake in striving to improve lives for families. MindScout could help prevent care partner burnout and save the cost of putting someone in a facility, she said: "Doing this was empowering in that it's a small way to help people with the disease."

Others are enthused about the project's result as well. "It's totally exciting. To my knowledge, there's nothing out there like this for people with various forms of dementia," said Dr. Paul Raia, director of patient care and family support at the Massachusetts Alzheimer's Association.

Raia was able to recommend a user-friendly approach for MindScout, including the large screen and buttons. "It's geared for early stage patients living at home with a spouse who goes off to work," he said.

Raia was struck by how the students considered the needs of the caretaker. "It allows the working spouse to access and monitor somewhat the patients' activities at home," he said. "It has a 'To Do' list that can be remotely accessed from a spouse's computer at work."

And it's voice-activated, he said, so when a patient asks, "Where do we keep the cups?" for instance, the caretakers' voice can be heard answering, "In the cabinet above the sink."

MindScout can accommodate 200 different cues, Raia said, to relieve the caretakers of the grind of answering the same question over and over.

However, the marketability of the device is more than a couple of years away, according to Stephen Schiffman, Olin associate professor of entrepreneurship. Schiffman helped the students with the business aspects of the project. "It's a little too early for it to be attractive for someone to commercialize," he said. "It will take another year to really build a prototype with user testing for someone who'd like to buy or license it."

And, considering his elderly mother, who is hard of hearing, Schiffman said, the device could be adapted for multiple users to help them live in their homes longer.

As a Senior Consulting Project for Engineering project, MindScout was funded by the college after interested seniors were selected to be on the team. However, future financial support is uncertain. Olin funds one senior project each year, while corporations sponsor a dozen other SCOPE team projects.

"We're looking around to see what might happen. We'd like to move ahead with it next year," said Schiffman. But that will entail looking for funding and applying for grants, and that, in turn, depends on finding students committed to continuing the work.

Raia is keenly interested in the project's outcome. "We're encouraging them to pursue it," he said.

But that is little comfort to today's patients and caretakers.

"The need for the device is clear. I hope it ends up on the market," said Aaron Boxer, an engineer with Millogic in Maynard, whose mother has later-stage Alzheimer's and is in a nursing home. Boxer teaches at Olin one day a week and also advised the SCOPE students about MindScout.

He and Schiffman both said they were committed to helping Olin students get MindScout to market. "We're interested and passionate about seeing this come into being in the world," said Schiffman.

Of MindScout's prospects, David Barrett, faculty member in charge of SCOPE projects, said, "The advising faculty for the project are searching for a corporate funding partner to continue the project in Olin's foundry. They have a few promising leads, but we can't discuss them until they mature. A future group of students could propose a follow on the project as a new FW Olin SCOPE project or they could seek a grant to continue it as well."