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New apps help visually impaired users see the world differently

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Visually impaired iPhone users can now download two new free apps developed to give them more autonomy in their everyday lives.

Created by a team based at the University of Michigan, VizLens is essentially a screen reader that employs a person’s smartphone camera to allow them to understand and operate a variety of interfaces in everyday environments, including home appliances and public kiosks, just by touching buttons on their mobile.

Meanwhile, Image Explorer identifies features in a picture allowing the user to examine it through touch and audio feedback.

Anhong Guo, assistant professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Michigan, led the development of both software applications, which are available to download from the Apple app store. He said: “A blind user can take a picture of an interface, and we use optical character recognition to automatically detect the text labels.

“A user can first familiarise themself with the layout on their smartphone touchscreen. Then, they can move their finger on the physical appliance control panel, and the app will speak out the button under the user’s finger.”

Loss of vision can affect people of all ages. But the majority of those with vision impairment and blindness are over the age of 50. The leading cause of eyesight problems is cataracts and uncorrected refractive errors.

VizLens uses a smartphone’s camera to view control interfaces, such as the one on this microwave, and read each label. Image: Human-AI Lab, University of Michigan

According to the UK-based RNIB (Royal National Institute of Blind People) nearly 80% of those living with sight loss are 65 or older, and around 60% are 75-plus. Of these, well over half of people with sight loss are women.

But the advent of smartphones and specially tailored apps has revolutionised how the visually impaired now interact with the world around them.

For the Image Explorer, Professor Guo and his team integrated a suite of object detection and segmentation models – including Meta’s Detectron2 visual recognition library and Google OCR (optical character recognition) and image analysis models – to enable visually impaired users to explore what’s in the depiction and how the different objects relate to one another.

Professor Guo’s aim has been to offer visually impaired people an accurate way of forming a mental image when alt text is missing or incomplete, as AI-generated captions are often not sufficient.

He explained: “There are a number of automated caption programmes out there that blind people use to understand images, but they often have errors, and it’s impossible for users to debug them because they can’t see the images. Our goal, then, was to stitch together a bunch of AI tools to give users the ability to explore images in more detail with a greater degree of agency.”

When a picture’s uploaded, Image Explorer provides a thorough analysis of the content. It gives a general overview of the image, including the objects detected, relevant tags, and a caption.

The app also features a touch-based interface that allows users to explore the spatial layout and content of the image by pointing to different areas. ​​

Image Explorer correctly auto captions the image as “a couple of women walk down a sidewalk.” Image: Human-AI Lab, University of Michigan

Image Explorer developers say it is unique in the level of detail it provides.

It gives users a comprehensive description of the objects in an image, even down to the level of what type of clothing a person is wearing and what activities they are engaged in, as well as their position within the picture.

Professor Guo said: “Image Explorer helps users understand the content of an image even though they cannot see it.”

Hundreds of visually impaired, user-testing participants have experimented with VizLens and Image Explorer, offering feedback to Professor Guo’s team, which is continuing to develop these tools.

First discussed in 2022, Image Explorer is a much newer concept than VizLens, which made its academic debut in 2016.

Some of its details need further refinement- for instance, most tops are simplified to ‘shirts,’ and different tools within Image Explorer sometimes give conflicting information.

“The accuracy relies on the models we use, and as they improve, Image Explorer will improve,” Professor Guo said. “In spite of these errors, the results we presented in 2022 show that Image Explorer enables users to make more informed judgements of the accuracy of the AI-generated captions.”

Professor Guo is looking forward to the feedback that will come with public deployment. “We will be able to observe how people use these tools and adapt them to their lives,” he said.

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Tai chi outperforms conventional exercise for seniors

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New findings from 12 studies involving 2,901 participants have demonstrated that tai chi outperforms conventional exercise in improving mobility and balance in seniors.

While tai chi is understood to be beneficial for functional mobility and balance in older adults, such benefits are not well understood due to large variance in research study protocols and observations.

This new review and analysis has now shown that tai chi can induce greater improvement in functional mobility and balance in relatively healthy older adults compared to conventional exercise.

The findings showed the following performance results:

  • The time to complete 50-foot walking was 1.84 seconds faster. 
  • The time to maintain a one-leg stance was 6 seconds longer when eyes were open and 1.65 seconds longer when eyes were closed. 
  • Individuals improved their timed-up-and-go test performance by 0.18 points, indicating quicker standing, walking, and sitting.
  • Individuals taking the functional reach test showed significant improvement with a standardised mean difference of 0.7, suggesting a noteworthy positive impact on the ability to reach and perform daily activities.

Secondary analyses revealed that the use of tai chi with relatively short duration of less than 20 weeks, low total time of less than 24 total hours, and/or focusing on the Yang-style of this ancient form of Chinese martial arts were particularly beneficial for functional mobility and balance as compared to conventional exercise.

“This systematic literature review and meta-analysis are exciting because they provide strong evidence that tai chi is a more efficient strategy to improve functional mobility and balance in relatively healthy older adults, as compared to conventional exercise,” said Brad Manor, Ph.D., director of the Mobility and Falls Program at Hebrew SeniorLife’s Hinda and Arthur Marcus Institute for Aging Research, and associate professor of medicine, Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

“This research suggests that tai chi should be carefully considered in future studies and routines of rehabilitative programs for balance and mobility in older adults,” said Bao Dapeng, professor at Beijing Sport University.

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New standards for biomarkers of ageing

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A paper has put forward a new framework for standardising the development and validation of biomarkers of ageing to better predict longevity and quality of life.

Led by Harvard researchers, the team has zeroed in on biomarkers of ageing using omic data from population-based studies. 

The team included ageing and longevity expert Alex Zhavoronkov, PhD, founder and CEO of AI-driven drug discovery company Insilico Medicine, and the findings appeared in Nature Medicine

Ageing is associated with a number of biological changes including increased molecular and cellular damage, however, researchers do not yet have a standardised means to evaluate and validate biomarkers related to ageing. 

In order to create those standards as well as actionable clinical tools, the team analysed population-based cohort studies built on omic data (data related to biological molecules which can include proteomics, transcriptomics, genomics, and epigenomics) of blood-based biomarkers of ageing. The researchers then compared the predictive strength of different biomarkers, including study design and data collection approaches, and looked at how these biomarkers presented in different populations. 

In order to better assess the impact of ageing using biomarkers, the researchers found that clinicians needed to expand their focus to consider not only mortality as an outcome, but also how biomarkers of aging are associated with numerous other health outcomes, including functional decline, frailty, chronic disease, and disability. They also call for the standardisation of omic data to improve reliability. 

“Omics and biomarkers harmonisation efforts, such as the Biolearn project, are instrumental in validation of biomarkers of aging” said co-first author Mahdi Moqri, PhD, of the Division of Genetics. 

Biolearn is an open-source project for biomarkers of aging and is helping to harmonise existing ageing biomarkers, unify public datasets, and provide computational methodologies.

The team also emphasised the importance of continued collaborations among research groups on “large-scale, longitudinal studies that can track long-term physiological changes and responses to therapeutics in diverse populations”, and that further work is required to understand how implementation of biomarker evaluation in clinical trials might improve patient quality of life and survival.

“If we hope to have clinical trials for interventions that extend healthy lifespan in humans, we need reliable, validated biomarkers of ageing,” said co-first author Jesse Poganik, PhD, of the Division of Genetics. 

“We hope that our framework will help prioritise the most promising biomarkers and provide health care providers with clinically valuable and actionable tools.”

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Healthy aging research to receive $115 million

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Global non-profit Hevolution Foundation has announced $115 million in funding that makes up 49 new awards under its Geroscience Research Opportunities (HF-GRO) programme.  

As part of Hevolution’s mission to catalyse the healthspan scientific ecosystem and drive transformative breakthroughs in healthy aging, HF-GRO is funding promising pre-clinical research in aging biology and geroscience. 

Through this first wave of HF-GRO awards, Hevolution will invest up to $115 million in this first cohort of 49 selected projects over the next five years. Its second call for proposals under HF-GRO will be announced later this year, offering an additional $115 million to address the significant funding gaps in aging research.  

Dr. Felipe Sierra, Hevolution’s Chief Scientific Officer stated: “These 49 important research projects represent a significant step forward in deepening our understanding of healthy aging. Hevolution’s prime objective is to mobilise greater investment around uncovering the foundational mechanisms behind biological aging. 

“We are steadfast in our belief that by examining the root causes of aging, rather than solely focusing on its associated diseases, we can usher in a brighter future for humanity.” 

HF-GRO awardees include researchers at prestigious institutions across the United States, Canada, and Europe, including the U.S. National Institute on Aging, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, the Buck Institute, the Mayo Clinic, New York University, and the University of California San Francisco, among many others. 

The American Federation for Aging Research is providing programmatic support for the HF-GRO program, with grantees selected through a rigorous two-stage peer-review process involving 100 experts in aging biology and geroscience. 

Dr Berenice Benayoun, an HF-GRO grant recipient at the University of Southern California, stated: “I am extremely honored and excited that Hevolution selected our project for funding. This is a project close to my heart, which aims at understanding why and how the female and male innate immune aging differs. 

“This funding will support us as we start laying the foundation for a lasting improvement of women’s health throughout aging.” 

To date, Hevolution has committed approximately $250 million to transform the healthy aging sector, including the $40 million for specialised research and development in healthspan science recently announced at Hevolution’s Global Healthspan Summit. 

Hevolution is ramping up its investments to enable healthier aging for all and is now the second largest funder of aging biology research worldwide.  

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