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VIDEO: £20m hub to develop dementia tech to aid independent living

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Scientists at a new £20m research centre will develop technologies to create dementia friendly ‘Healthy Homes’ and provide insights into how dementia develops.

Sensors small enough to fit in the ear, robotic devices and sleep monitors are just some of the technologies due to be tested at the Care Research & Technology Centre to enable people with dementia to live safely and independently in their own homes.

Based at Imperial College London, in collaboration with the University of Surrey, the hub joins six national discovery science centres that collectively make up the UK Dementia Research Institute (DRI) and is set to open on 1 June.

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Some of the technology already exists, but researchers at the new centre now want to extend it and they plan to develop sensors that can be placed around the home or on a patient’s body to track vital signs such as heart rate, blood pressure and temperature.

The hope is that these sensors – some of which are small enough to be worn as an earpiece – will also provide key information such as gait, brain activity and sleep that have previously been hard to measure in the home.

Other technologies include artificial intelligence that automatically integrates all patient information and flag any changes; devices that allow researchers to track a patient’s memory and then use this information to predict when patients might run into problems; and monitors that detect sleep disturbance – a significant problem in dementia – and record data that can be used to improve sleep quality.

Scientists at the centre are also looking at developing rapid at-home tests for infections that often lead to hospital stays in people with dementia.

Robotic devices that interact with patients living with dementia will also be tested. These devices will assist by alerting patients to safety risks – such as spilt liquid on the floor or a cooker left on, in addition to monitoring if a patient seems agitated or distressed, and notifying the patient’s healthcare team.

Professor David Sharp, neurologist at Imperial College London and head of the new centre said: “Latest figures suggest one in four hospital beds are occupied by people with dementia – and 20% of these admissions are due to preventable causes such as falls, dehydration and infections.

“The new technologies we develop will improve our ability to support people in their homes. They will allow us to intervene at an early stage, to prevent the crises that so often lead to hospital stays, or a move to a care home. What’s more we’ll be able to improve our understanding of dementia onset and progression.”

The centre will be based at the Sir Michael Uren Biomedical Engineering Research Hub, part of Imperial’s White City Campus. It will bring together scientists, engineers and doctors to build on existing, early-stage technologies that can be integrated into a person’s home.

The idea is this technology continuously assesses physical and mental wellbeing, alerting a person’s medical team of any potential problems at an early stage.

All of the technology will be assessed and evaluated by people living with dementia, and their carers, to ensure it is both practical and needed.

Science Minister Chris Skidmore said: “Advanced technologies such as robotics and Artificial Intelligence have great potential to support us in illness or old age. This project will help those living with dementia stay in their own homes for longer, with the dignity and independence we all deserve.

“One of our modern Industrial Strategy’s Grand Challenges is Ageing Society, and that is why we are backing new research like this to help us all adapt to our society where people come first.”

The centre will be funded by the UK DRI’s three founding partners: the Medical Research Council, Alzheimer’s Society and Alzheimer’s Research UK.

Professor Payam Barnaghi, Professor of Machine Intelligence at the University of Surrey and deputy director of the UK Dementia Research Institute Care Research and Technology Centre, said: “Stays in hospitals and care homes can be very distressing for people with dementia. Not only are they trying to navigate a new physical environment, they are distanced from their friends and families causing further distress.

“The technologies involved in this project will enable people to live independently at home whilst not sacrificing their care.

“Working with the latest machine learning capabilities means the technology we’re using will be able to get better at spotting warning signs and events that require intervention.

“Doctors will be able to have confidence in their ability to monitor people remotely and to react quickly to any worrying changes. Improving the quality of life of people with dementia is crucial to their and their families overall wellbeing.” 

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