Simple wrist sensors let neurologists collect better data about patients with epilepsy — and could alert patients that they need to seek medical care.
In this week’s issue of the journal Neurology, researchers at MIT and two Boston hospitals provide early evidence that a simple, unobtrusive wrist sensor could gauge the severity of epileptic seizures as accurately as electroencephalograms (EEGs) do — but without the ungainly scalp electrodes and electrical leads. The device could make it possible to collect clinically useful data from epilepsy patients as they go about their daily lives, rather than requiring them to come to the hospital for observation. And if early results are borne out, it could even alert patients when their seizures are severe enough that they need to seek immediate medical attention.
Rosalind Picard, a professor of media arts and sciences at MIT, and her group originally designed the sensors to gauge the emotional states of children with autism, whose outward behavior can be at odds with what they’re feeling. The sensor measures the electrical conductance of the skin, an indicator of the state of the sympathetic nervous system, which controls the human fight-or-flight response.
In a study conducted at Children’s Hospital Boston, the research team — Picard, her student Ming-Zher Poh, neurologist Tobias Loddenkemper and four colleagues from MIT, Children’s Hospital and Brigham and Women’s Hospital — discovered that the higher a patient’s skin conductance during a seizure, the longer it took for the patient’s brain to resume the neural oscillations known as brain waves, which EEG measures.
At least one clinical study has shown a correlation between the duration of brain-wave suppression after seizures and the incidence of sudden unexplained death in epilepsy (SUDEP), a condition that claims thousands of lives each year in the United States alone. With SUDEP, death can occur hours after a seizure.
Currently, patients might use a range of criteria to determine whether a seizure is severe enough to warrant immediate medical attention. One of them is duration. But during the study at Children’s Hospital, Picard says, “what we found was that this severity measure had nothing to do with the length of the seizure.” Ultimately, data from wrist sensors could provide crucial information to patients deciding whether to roll over and go back to sleep or get to the emergency room.
The realization that the wrist sensors might be of use in treating epilepsy was something of a fluke. “We’d been working with kids on the autism spectrum, and I didn’t realize, but a lot of them have seizures,” Picard says. In reviewing data from their autism studies, Picard and her group found that seizures were sometimes preceded by huge spikes in skin conductance. It seemed that their sensors might actually be able to predict the onset of seizures.
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