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Digital pens and diagnosing the onset of dementia

Published: 
Monday, August 24, 2015
Science and Society

In last week’s column, it was indicated that the number of people, worldwide, who are 65 years and over was approaching one half of a billion and set to increase. The so-called silver economy arose as a direct consequence of the need for providing services for the large number of elderly people; to allow them to live comfortable and full lives as is humanly possible. 

It goes without saying that caregiving will continue to be a growth industry thereby giving further impetus to the development and integration of assistive technologies. Some of these were described in the previous article. As the numbers of the elderly increase so does the cost to society. Why? Well as the body ages so does the likelihood of age-related chronic illnesses. 

Somebody has to bear the cost of treatments and caregiving. That is why, there is a global movement to review the retirement age, with a view to pushing it back so as to reduce the financial burden placed on the younger working class and also to develop assistive technologies for diagnostic and preventive purposes.  

Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s are two age-related illnesses. Their symptoms are reflected in emotional and mental deterioration that tend to progressively become more severe. It is thus felt that if brain conditions are monitored and the signs that indicate the onset of the diseases can be spotted early, then it might be possible to allow for treatments that can either delay the symptoms or ideally, eliminate the illnesses totally. 

One way of looking for early signs of the disease is to look for irregularities in the drawing of the person being examined. MIT researchers think that they are on to a possible solution by using a digital pen. This is a device which captures and stores handwriting/drawings as digital data. These sets of data can be analysed to detect trends over time. By using custom tracking software to monitor the output of the digital pen they were able to analyse both what and how the patient draws. 

Healthy people spend a lot more time thinking than scribbling while Parkinson’s patients struggle with the drawing process. Presently, this technique, using pen and paper, is the method utilised by physicians to diagnose patients. By using a digital pen and custom built software, the MIT researchers are of the view that they can more accurately predict the onset of the diseases. 

The algorithms involved in the prediction process, to date, are not quite ready for field applications, but there is enough potential in the results to give rise to the expectation of a significant breakthrough. When one looks at this ground-breaking research, it is clear that it involves a multidisciplinary team using a readily available technology to solve a problem that has the potential to ease the suffering of millions of humans, both those afflicted by the illnesses and their loved ones. 

The question must be asked as to what impacting research is being done here, in T&T. The goal of science and technology is to bring about improvement in the lives of human beings. By developing new technologies and improving existing ones, productivity and economic growth occur. The urgent need is therefore to develop the capacity of research clusters and the R&D enterprise. 

Without this any and all talk of economic diversification remains just that: talk. In our case, an at least 30- year-old tedious monologue. Scientists and engineers are wealth creators. Without them, the economists and their ilk are less than useful. It is about time that the value of science and technology be fully comprehended and an S&T-based economy driven by R&D be developed.

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