Calling for a Cure: A Randolph professor and her students are part of national Alzheimer’s research utilizing smart phones

Katrin Schenk, assistant professor of physics.

Katrin Schenk, assistant professor of physics.

A Randolph professor and her students are part of national Alzheimer’s research utilizing smart phones

Katrin Schenk, assistant professor of physics

Katrin Schenk, assistant professor of physics

Randolph College is on the forefront of a national project that has the potential to improve the care of patients with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.

Under the direction of physics professor Katrin Schenk, Randolph students are conducting research that helps track and analyze a medical patient’s level of functioning. Using a smart watch, a cell phone, and signal beacons throughout the patient’s home, the system would give care providers a better picture of how that person is functioning. Imagine being able to look at your phone and knowing whether your grandfather with Alzheimer’s has been in bed all day or is wandering the neighborhood.

“This would be something that caregivers could use to lower their own stress, fatigue, and work level, as well as result in better care for the patient,” said Katrin.

The functional monitoring system is part of a larger project involving the University of California-San Francisco and the University of Nebraska Medical Center. Researchers at those institutions are recruiting patients and developing procedures to use the data collected by Randolph’s program. They also are preparing programs to help prevent harmful medication interactions. “The idea is to build this ecosystem around the patient where they’re protected on every side,” Katrin said.

Last year, Medicare awarded a $10 million grant to pay for a new major research project that will explore how this health care ecosystem can work. In November, the researchers started recruiting patients. The study will eventually involve 2,000 individuals with dementia, the most common kind being Alzheimer’s. About 500 of the study participants will receive the functional monitoring system overseen by the team at Randolph.

During the study, Randolph students will maintain and update the software that monitors patients’ functionality and delivers the data to doctors.

Katrin Schenk

Katrin and her research collaborators at other universities developed the idea for a medical monitoring system while brainstorming ways to take advantage of the array of technologies that are packed into modern cell phones: GPS units that pinpoint location, accelerometers that detect motion, and internet connections that enable automatic data transfer.

They realized that if these technologies could help track a person’s location and physical activity, they could provide better data to inform the care of medical patients and perhaps provide some respite for caregivers.

“Caregiver stress and fatigue are huge problems,” Katrin said. “Sometimes, they feel like they can’t go out of the house.”

Lara Joynes-Whidden ’92 knows that caregiver stress well. While in college, she spent her summers taking care of Alzheimer’s patients in a nursing home. Today, she is a counselor for a phone-in employee assistance program. She frequently talks to family caregivers who are trying to manage the stress of dealing with the heavy demands—emotionally, physically, and financially—of caring for parents or spouses with Alzheimer’s. When she learned about the functional monitoring project developed at Randolph, she immediately saw benefits for patients as well as caregivers.

“It makes sense. It’s particularly good to be able to track individuals who have the ability to wander,” she said. “The GPS capability is likely to increase safety for individuals with dementia.”

But the system does more than just locate a patient. It can send doctors or caregivers alerts based on a patient’s behavior. If he is not getting any physical activity, someone can intervene to ensure he takes a walk. If she has not been to the kitchen all day, someone can check to see that she is getting food. If the patient is walking slower, doctors can know about that before the next appointment.

“Lower gait speeds are associated with higher morbidity and mortality,” Katrin said. “Imagine if we could see changes in gait speed in real time. We could say, ‘Today his gait speed has gone down by 50 percent. Someone needs to go see what is going on.’”

That type of data can be extremely useful, said Susan Kelly Blue ’66, a neurologist who has been treating Alzheimer’s patients since 1973. “The more we can know about these patients, the better,” she said, adding that it could be especially useful in helping demonstrate to caregivers or relatives some problems they may not see.

However, Susan cautioned that technology cannot replace the in- person contact with and observations by doctors. While technology can help, a person’s diagnosis and medical care cannot be entirely turned over to algorithms. “Every patient is different,” she said. “You’ve got to look at the patient.”

In her 40 years of practice, Susan has seen dramatic changes in the way Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias are understood and treated. Doctors now recognize the importance of diet and exercise for Alzheimer’s patients. Moreover, medical research has yielded drugs that Susan—having treated Alzheimer’s patients before the medications were invented—fully believes have an effect.

“Dementia used to be just a guaranteed, downward progression, whether it was slow in some patients or more rapid in others,” Susan said. “But those drugs help people maintain their quality of life longer.”

Experts predict that Alzheimer’s disease will affect more people in the coming decades—potentially 16 million people by 2050. This makes research like Katrin’s, which seeks to make Alzheimer’s care more effective and efficient, important. After decades in the field, Susan is confident the research being conducted by scientists will continue to provide positive results. “I’m always optimistic,” she said. “I think there’s a good possibility for a cure. We just don’t know when that might happen.”

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