Smartphone App Assists Epilepsy Patients

Engineers and medical experts have joined forces in Chicago to to create a small prototype device and complex software that can monitor brainwaves of people with epilepsy and then send them from a patient's smartphone to a monitoring center for analysis.

Illustration: Richard Tuschman
The team hopes that once the techology and software is developed, the data gathered could be used to warn epileptics in real-time that a seizure may be imminent, giving time to quickly stop driving or operating equipment. Data compiled from epileptic children could be interpreted by software in the child's smartphone, which would send a text message to a parent or guardian for help when needed.

"Making an emergency call for a patient in need is one of those huge unprecedented wins from this technology," said Sam Cinquegrani, CEO of Wave Technology Group. Wave software engineers are collaborating on the project with staffers at the University of Chicago Hospital's Pediatric Epilepsy Center.

Part of what inspired the project at Wave Technology is personal. Cinquegrani said he stuttered as a child, which some doctors said may be due to mild epilepsy. "I grew out of it and a lot of children do, but it made an impression," he said.

Cinquegrani said he met leaders in the univeristy hospital's epilepsy center a decade ago, which "gave me an opportunity to give back. We're excited about this because we can make a difference and give some quality of life back to children."

An estimated 3 million people in the U.S. have epilepsy, and 10% of the cases are so severe that patients could have several seizures a day, he explained. "Some people are in danger of dying from it," he added.

Since the new technology is designed to run on mobile devices, brain wave data could be gathered constantly to allow doctors to compute trends that would help in a patient's long-term care. Also, a compilation of data collected from many patients could be stored in a nationwide database where researchers could analyze it to come up with future treatments and cures, Cinquegrani said.

The prototype now in development includes a small 16-channel amplifier -- smaller than a credit card -- that would be attached by wires to sensors on a patient's head. In the current design, a hat with a pocket sewn inside would be used to carry the amplifier.

Artwork: Chip Taylor, Photos by: Robert Cardin
The software would control the gathering of brain wave data by the amplifier and the ability to send it via Bluetooth to a smartphone carried by the patient, and from there to a typical cellular network for transfer to a monitoring center.

Field-testing on the prototype should be underway by year's end, with a review and approval by the Food and Drug Administration expected sometime in late 2011, Cinquegrani said.

Wave Technology already has several patents for software to be used in the system, which the company plans to sell as a service that would cost $1,500 to $2,500 per patient per year. The projected price tag would be a fraction of the cost of monitoring and treating epileptic patients for one or more days in a hospital, Cinquegrani said. The cost of the service could well be covered by insurers.

Even a typical electroencephalogram (EEG) machine for monitoring the electrical activity of the brain can cost a hospital $10,000, and the process often requires using wires to carry data, meaning a patient must remain in a room during monitoring.

With about 100 epilepsy centers in the nation, it is only possible to treat and monitor some 1,000 patients at a time today, but the need is obviously many times higher, Cinquegrani said.

The small amplifier is being built by TMSI based in the Netherlands, he said. Currently, a larger TMSI amplifier is being used by Wave Technology engineers to test code for forwarding patient data to a smartphone and then to a server in a monitoring center.

The University of Chicago Hospital today uses a larger amplifier connected to a laptop for epilepsy monitoring, Cinquegrani said. That system isn't mobile, he added.

One of Wave Technology's patents is for an SMS (Short Message Service) remote application handler, which can be used on a smartphone to launch an application there. That technology will be valuable for expanding the functions that the amplifier can be used to detect, such as heart rates and data from blood sugar tests for diabetic patients, Cinquegrani said.

The amplifier will be equipped with a chip that can store data in case of an interruption in a wireless connection.

Initially, the development team is working to support smartphones running Android, Windows Phone 7, and BlackBerry. The iPhone is also a prime candidate, but Apple thus far has not exposed all the Application Programming Interfaces needed by the engineering team, Cinquegrani said.

The cost of building the technology, now being called the Wave EEG Monitor, comes from revenues generated by other parts of the Wave Technology business. Forty engineers have worked on the project, which started in November 2009.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen , or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed . His e-mail address is mhamblen@computerworld.com .

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