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Opinion: How robots could help to ease the social care crisis

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Robear is an animatronic bear that lifts elders with mobility problems, Paro is a fuzzy robotic seal intended to provide a futuristic form of animal therapy, and Pepper is a humanoid with remote-monitoring capabilities and learning tools.

Pet robots have revolutionised and enhanced the standard of care, improving the wellbeing of care home residents. Here Stephen Hayes, managing director at automation tech firm Beckhoff UK, explores the benefits of integrating robots in social care homes.

There is a wide variety of care robots on the market. Some are aimed at physical care, including machines that can assist with mobility and exercise, feed their owner and help them with hygiene tasks. These could greatly benefit caregivers, freeing their time and preventing them from suffering from long-term health conditions or disability due to the physical effort associated with giving care.

Others play the role of a companion, engaging older people emotionally to reduce and even prevent cognitive decline, providing companionship for lonely older people, and making those with cognitive conditions easier for care staff to manage.

Research by the University of Plymouth, conducted in care homes using these pets found decreased neuropsychiatric symptoms such as delusions, depression, anxiety, apathy and occupational disruptiveness because they provided a sense of responsibility and purpose.

Social care vacancies are higher than before the COVID-19 pandemic, and data shows one in ten social care posts are unfilled in a staffing crisis that could have harmful results for residents. In England, 152,000 social care posts remain empty, according to a report released by Skills for Care.

Steve Barclay, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care commented for The Telegraph earlier this year, stating that robots and AI are key to better supporting patients and reducing demand on social care staff. He said that there was a need to adopt an innovative approach to health and attempt to cut NHS waiting times while improving care for the elderly.

However, these robots present limitations, such as superficiality and lack of personalisation. Also, the content of their conversations can be very limited, making them less entertaining with the pass of time.

This was the case of the humanoid Pepper, for which production ceased in 2021 due to a weak demand as care homes did not see the long-term benefit of his interactions. Nevertheless, robots like Paro, which move and respond to touch, have had a positive impact on the wellbeing of care home residents. However, with a cost of £5,000, care homes are looking for more affordable options.

Japan is a pioneer in developing this kind of technology. The nation is facing a ‘greying’ crisis due to the aging of its population, so the country has invested heavily in developing caretech able to serve and provide emotional support.

In the UK, there are currently almost 12 million people who are aged 65 or over, and the number of people coping with illnesses such as arthritis or dementia is expected to increase. In fact, a recent machine learning study by the Journal of Medical Systems suggests that 135 million people might be affected by dementia by 2050.

To allow for continuous innovation in this field, the UK Government announced its commitment to invest at least 2.4 per cent of GDP in R&D by 2027. The programme supports the UK Government’s Ageing Society Grand Challenge and Future of Mobility Grand Challenge, which will ensure we meet the needs of an ageing society.

With this in mind, there are certain technologies that we are likely to see more of in care homes over the coming years, including robots that can connect to each other and other devices.

This includes devices such as oximeters, thermometers, or even thermal cameras, enabling the elderly to have consultations any time of the day, from home, and send out emergency notices to staff or hospitals. However, for care robots to be a success, state-of-the-art control technology is required.

Beckhoff’s Ethernet-based fieldbus system, EtherCAT, has extension modules that are compatible with third party hardware for integration. This platform process data and transports it directly, has a flexible topology and simple line or tree structure that requires no expensive infrastructure components and includes the environments for programming, diagnostics and configuration.

This global standard for real-time Ethernet communication provides workers with real-time information about elders like location, health condition, or learning progress. This data also allows carers focus their time on other urgent tasks, optimise resources and personalise treatment.

The advancement and implementation of robot pets could improve awareness of preventative care, reduce anxiety on disease and enhance stakeholder relationship.

Further research on caretech would tackle functional problems, making these devices an essential asset for any caregiver. By investing in the right control technology now, social care homes will be better prepared to take care of their residents.

Beckhoff provides PC-based control and EtherCAT to connect caretech systems. See more here.

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New AI program could predict likelihood of Alzheimer’s disease

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By analysing speech patterns, a new machine learning model can predict with a high degree of accuracy whether someone with mild cognitive impairment will develop Alzheimer’s-associated dementia within six years.

Trying to figure out whether someone has Alzheimer’s disease usually involves a battery of assessments—interviews, brain imaging, blood and cerebrospinal fluid tests. But, by then, it’s probably already too late: memories have started slipping away, long established personality traits have begun subtly shifting.

If caught early, new pioneering treatments can slow the disease’s remorseless progression, but there’s no surefire way to predict who will develop the dementia associated with Alzheimer’s.

Now, Boston University researchers say they have designed a promising new artificial intelligence computer program, or model, that could one day help change that—just by analysing a patient’s speech.

Their model can predict, with an accuracy rate of 78.5%, whether someone with mild cognitive impairment is likely to remain stable over the next six years—or fall into the dementia associated with Alzheimer’s disease.

While allowing clinicians to peer into the future and make earlier diagnoses, the researchers say their work could also help make cognitive impairment screening more accessible by automating parts of the process—no expensive lab tests, imaging exams, or even office visits required.

The model is powered by machine learning, a subset of AI where computer scientists teach a program to independently analyse data.

“We wanted to predict what would happen in the next six years—and we found we can reasonably make that prediction with relatively good confidence and accuracy,” says Ioannis (Yannis) Paschalidis, director of the BU Rafik B. Hariri Institute for Computing and Computational Science & Engineering. “It shows the power of AI.”

The multidisciplinary team of engineers, neurobiologists, and computer and data scientists published their findings in Alzheimer’s & Dementia, the journal of the Alzheimer’s Association.

“We hope, as everyone does, that there will be more and more Alzheimer’s treatments made available,” says Paschalidis, a BU College of Engineering Distinguished Professor of Engineering and founding member of the Faculty of Computing & Data Sciences.

“If you can predict what will happen, you have more of an opportunity and time window to intervene with drugs, and at least try to maintain the stability of the condition and prevent the transition to more severe forms of dementia.”

Calculating the probability of Alzheimer’s Disease

To train and build their new model, the researchers turned to data from one of the nation’s oldest and longest-running studies—the BU-led Framingham Heart Study. Although the Framingham study is focused on cardiovascular health, participants showing signs of cognitive decline undergo regular neuropsychological tests and interviews, producing a wealth of longitudinal information on their cognitive well-being.

Paschalidis and his colleagues were given audio recordings of 166 initial interviews with people, between ages 63 and 97, diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment—76 who would remain stable for the next six years and 90 whose cognitive function would progressively decline.

They then used a combination of speech recognition tools—similar to the programs powering your smart speaker—and machine learning to train a model to spot connections between speech, demographics, diagnosis, and disease progression.

After training it on a subset of the study population, they tested its predictive prowess on the rest of the participants.

“We combine the information we extract from the audio recordings with some very basic demographics—age, gender, and so on—and we get the final score,” says Paschalidis.

“You can think of the score as the likelihood, the probability, that someone will remain stable or transition to dementia. It had significant predictive ability.”

Rather than using acoustic features of speech, like enunciation or speed, the model is just pulling from the content of the interview—the words spoken, how they’re structured. And Paschalidis says the information they put into the machine learning program is rough around the edges: the recordings, for example, are messy—low-quality and filled with background noise.

“It’s a very casual recording,” he says. “And still, with this dirty data, the model is able to make something out of it.”

That’s important, because the project was partly about testing AI’s ability to make the process of dementia diagnosis more efficient and automated, with little human involvement. In the future, the researchers say, models like theirs could be used to bring care to patients who aren’t near medical centres or to provide routine monitoring through interaction with an at-home app, drastically increasing the number of people who get screened.

According to Alzheimer’s Disease International, the majority of people with dementia worldwide never receive a formal diagnosis, leaving them shut off from treatment and care.

Rhoda Au, a co-author on the paper, says AI has the power to create “equal opportunity science and healthcare.” The study builds on the same team’s previous work, where they found AI could accurately detect cognitive impairment using voice recordings.

“Technology can overcome the bias of work that can only be done by those with resources, or care that has relied on specialized expertise that is not available to everyone,” says Au, a BU Chobanian & Avedisian School of Medicine professor of anatomy and neurobiology.

For her, one of the most exciting findings was “that a method for cognitive assessment that has the potential to be maximally inclusive—possibly independent of age, sex/gender, education, language, culture, income, geography—could serve as a potential screening tool for detecting and monitoring symptoms related to Alzheimer’s disease.”

A dementia diagnosis from home

In future research, Paschalidis would like to explore using data not just from formal clinician-patient interviews—with their scripted questions and predictable back-and-forth—but also from more natural, everyday conversations.

He’s already looking ahead to a project on if AI can help diagnose dementia via a smartphone app, as well as expanding the current study beyond speech analysis—the Framingham tests also include patient drawings and data on daily life patterns—to boost the model’s predictive accuracy.

“Digital is the new blood,” says Au. “You can collect it, analyse it for what is known today, store it, and reanalyse it for whatever new emerges tomorrow.”

This research was funded, in part, by the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and the BU Rajen Kilachand Fund for Integrated Life Science and Engineering.

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UK body calls for more ageing research backing

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The British Society for Research on Ageing (BSRA) is calling for more public backing in the UK for research to help people stay healthier for longer, as an alternative to charities that support research on diseases.

The greatest risk factor for disease is ageing, but we have very little charitable support for research into how to slow ageing, the organisation warns.

Many diseases such as cancers and heart disease tragically shorten lives far too early, or like Alzheimer’s and arthritis, destroy quality of life for patients and carers. There is understandably huge public charitable support for more research. However, the greatest risk factor for those diseases, and even infectious diseases like COVID, is ageing.

Yet in comparison there is currently very little support for research to understand how we can slow ageing to prevent disease. This approach may be more productive in the long term to fight disease. Furthermore, keeping people healthier for longer, or avoiding chronic diseases all together, would be the most favourable outcome.

The UK population is ageing fast, putting pressure on the NHS and the economy. Despite this pressing problem all around us, there is no accessible way for people to support research into ageing in the UK. The BSRA aims to change that.

With a very small budget and almost completely run by volunteers, the BSRA has successfully funded several small research projects but progress needs to be accelerated. More funding is needed because it takes years to see the effects of ageing, so studies are long. Also ageing affects individuals in different ways, meaning that large numbers of people must be studied to make firm conclusions.

Therefore, there is an urgency to get studies funded and the BSRA has decided to launch an ambitious fundraising campaign to boost research into ageing. Initially, the Society aims to fund a series of one year research projects at the Masters degree level at universities across the UK and with plans to raise much more in the future to support longer and more ambitious projects that will impact the lives of the general public.

Chair of the BSRA, Prof David Weinkove from Durham University, says “The time is now to really get behind research into the biology of ageing. We have fantastic researchers across the country, but they are held back by a lack of funding. Evidence-based research is needed to understand how we people can stay healthier for longer, and to then we must make that knowledge available to as many people as possible”.

Dr Jed Lye says “This is a great opportunity for the public to help, for corporations to contribute, or philanthropists wanting a large impact with a relatively small donation; every £20,000 we raise can fund an entire year of research into ageing and longevity, and gets a budding scientist their research qualification.”

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Wearable device could provide early warning of Alzheimer’s

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App for monitoring Parkinson’s disease gets FDA clearance

Monitoring daily activity patterns using a wrist-worn device may detect early warning signs of Alzheimer’s disease, according to a new study led by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

The researchers analysed movement data from wristwatch-like devices called actigraphs worn by 82 cognitively healthy older adults who were participants in a long-running study of aging. Some of the participants had detectable brain amyloid

buildup as measured by PET scan. Buildup of the protein amyloid beta in the brain is a key feature of Alzheimer’s disease.

Using a sensitive statistical technique, the researchers found significant differences between this “amyloid-positive” group and “amyloid-negative” participants in mean activity in certain afternoon periods and differences in variability of activity across days in a broader range of time windows.

The new study was published online February 21 in the journal SLEEP.

“We need to replicate these findings in larger studies, but it is interesting that we’ve now seen a similar difference between amyloid-positive and amyloid-negative older adults in two independent studies,” says Adam Spira, PhD, professor in the Department of Mental Health at the Bloomberg School.

The new study’s results partly confirm findings from an earlier study in a smaller sample, also led by Spira, and suggest that actigraphs someday could be a tool to help detect incipient Alzheimer’s disease before significant cognitive impairment sets in. Data from the prior study came from participants in the Anti-Amyloid Treatment in Asymptomatic Alzheimer’s (A4) and the Longitudinal Evaluation of Amyloid Risk and Neurodegeneration (LEARN) studies.

For their new study, Spira and colleagues investigated the potential of actigraph-based monitoring in 82 community-dwelling individuals whose average age was about 76. Each participant had a PET scan to measure brain amyloid and wore an actigraph 24 hours per day for one week. Using a sensitive statistical technique called FOSR (function-on-scalar regression), the researchers found that the 25 amyloid-positive participants, compared to the 57 amyloid-negative participants, had higher mean activity during the early afternoon, 1:00 to 3:30 p.m., and less day-to-day variability in activity from 1:30 to 4:00 p.m. and 7:30 to 10:30 p.m.

In more conservative analyses, some of these time windows with differences were no longer statistically significant. Nonetheless, the higher afternoon activity and lower afternoon variability echoed the investigators’ prior findings.

Alzheimer’s disease, the leading cause of dementia, is estimated to affect more than six million older adults in the U.S. The Alzheimer’s disease process is still not fully understood but is characterised by amyloid plaques and tangles in the brain, which typically begin to accumulate a decade or two before Alzheimer’s is diagnosed.

The only approved treatments that may slow the disease course are those that target amyloid beta and reduce the plaques. Many researchers believe that such treatments can be much more effective if given earlier in the disease course—ideally, years before dementia becomes evident.

Abnormal patterns of sleep and waking activity have been studied as potential early indicators of Alzheimer’s. Alzheimer’s patients typically have abnormal sleep-wake rhythms, and prior studies have found evidence that amyloid accumulation may disrupt sleep-wake rhythms relatively early in the disease process. There is also evidence that sleep loss promotes amyloid accumulation, suggesting a “vicious circle.”

Such findings hint at the possibility that older adults might someday, among other measures, wear wristwatch-like devices that would automatically track and analyse their sleep and waking activity. Individuals with anomalous activity patterns could then consult their physicians for more in-depth Alzheimer’s screening.

The individuals in the new study were participants in a long-running study, the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging, which is conducted by the Intramural Research Program of the National Institute on Aging (NIA), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Several members of the NIA team were co-authors of the study.

Standard, non-FOSR statistical methods did not detect any significant differences in activity or sleep patterns, suggesting the methods may be less sensitive to amyloid deposition.

In the earlier actigraphy study, the researchers, using FOSR-based analyses in a different sample of 59 participants, found increases in mean activity in afternoon hours and differences in variability, including lower variability in the afternoon, among amyloid-positive participants.

The scientists don’t know why amyloid buildup would trigger differences in activity patterns during these particular times of day. They note that there is a well-known phenomenon among individuals with Alzheimer’s disease called “sundowning,” in which agitation increases in the afternoon and early evening.

“It’s conceivable that the higher afternoon activity we observed is a signal of ‘preclinical sundowning,’” Spira says.

“At the same time, it’s important to note that these findings represent averages among a small sample of older people over a short period of time. We can’t predict whether an individual will develop amyloid plaques based on the timing of their activity. So, it would be premature for older people to be concerned because their fitness trackers say they are particularly active in the afternoon, for example.”

He and his colleagues plan to do larger studies of this kind. They also hope to do longer-term studies to see if daily activity-pattern changes are associated not only with brain amyloid but also with actual cognitive decline.

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