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Smartphone turned into BP monitor with cheap 80 cent clip

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Engineers from the University of California San Diego have devised a cheap and simple way to check blood pressure using a smartphone.

They’ve come up with a low-cost clip that can tap into the phone’s camera and flash when used in conjunction with a special downloadable app.

To measure their blood pressure, the user simply presses on the clip with their fingertip. The smartphone app tells them how hard and long to press during the measurement.

The 3-D printed plastic clip that fits over the smartphone’s camera and flash currently costs about 80 cents to make. But the team behind the innovation says the cost could be as low as 10 cents apiece if their idea is adopted and manufacturing can start on a commercial scale.

Such a device would revolutionise blood pressure monitoring, especially in impoverished and remote areas of the world where older adults and pregnant women, for example, may not have ready access to clinics or hospitals equipped with BP cuffs.

News of the technological breakthrough has been published in the peer-reviewed journal Scientific Reports.

Yinan (Tom) Xuan, study first author and an electrical and computer engineering PhD student at UC San Diego, said: “We’ve created an inexpensive solution to lower the barrier to blood pressure monitoring.”

Study senior author Edward Wang, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at UC San Diego and director of the Digital Health Lab, added: “Because of their low cost, these clips could be handed out to anyone who needs them but cannot go to a clinic regularly. A blood pressure monitoring clip could be given to you at your check-up, much like how you get a pack of floss and a toothbrush at your dental visit.”

Prototype of the blood pressure monitoring clip. Credit: Digital Health Lab/UC San Diego

A key advantage of the clip is that it does not need to be calibrated to a cuff.

Dr Wang said: “This is what distinguishes our device from other blood pressure monitors.”

Other cuffless systems being developed for smartwatches and smartphones, he explained, require obtaining a separate set of measurements with a cuff so that their models can be tuned to fit these measurements.

“Our is a calibration-free system, meaning you can just use our device without touching another blood pressure monitor to get a trustworthy blood pressure reading.”

The clip features an optical design similar to that of a pinhole camera. When the user presses on the clip, the smartphone’s flash lights up the fingertip. That light is then projected through a pinhole-sized channel to the camera as an image of a red circle.

A spring inside the clip allows the user to press with different levels of force. The harder the user presses, the bigger the red circle appears on the camera.

The smartphone app then extracts two main pieces of information from the red circle. By looking at its size, the app can measure the amount of pressure that the user’s fingertip applies. And by looking at the brightness of the circle, the app can measure the volume of blood going in and out of the fingertip.

An algorithm converts this information into systolic and diastolic blood pressure readings.

The user presses on the clip and a custom smartphone app guides them on how hard and long to press during the measurement. Credit: Digital Health Lab/UC San Diego

The researchers tested the clip on 24 volunteers from the UC San Diego Medical Centre. Results were comparable to those taken by a blood pressure cuff.

Alison Moore,  study co-author, medical collaborator and chief of the Division of Geriatrics in the Department of Medicine at UC San Diego School of Medicine, said: “Using a standard blood pressure cuff can be awkward to put on correctly, and this solution has the potential to make it easier for older adults to self-monitor blood pressure.”

Checking blood pressure is one of the simplest, but one of the most important health checks. It offers a vital insight into your health.

Uncontrolled high blood pressure – or hypertension – increases with advancing age. More than half of people aged between 60-69 and around three-quarters of those 70-plus are affected.

It can lead to a stroke, heart attack, and heart and kidney failure.

Low blood pressure can be dangerous too, causing dizziness, fainting, confusion, blurred vision, nausea and vomiting, weakness and tiredness.

Lower than normal blood pressure that doesn’t cause any symptoms in an otherwise healthy person usually doesn’t require any treatment. But it can cause older adults to fall resulting in broken bones and a decline in health.

Sudden severe drops in blood pressure starve the body of oxygen, which can lead to damage of the heart, brain and other organs.

While the UC San Diego team has only proven the solution on a single smartphone model, the clip’s current design theoretically should work on other phone models.

Dr Wang and one of his lab members, Colin Barry, a co-author on the paper who is an electrical and computer engineering student at UC San Diego, have now jointly founded a company, Billion Labs Inc, to refine and commercialise the technology.

The next steps include making the technology more user friendly, especially for older adults; testing its accuracy across different skin tones; and creating a more universal design.

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On a mission to show that hearing loss is not inevitable

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The world’s largest investigation into the effectiveness of hearing training kicks off this week – as part of a movement to prove that hearing loss is not an inevitable part of ageing.

The research project aims to attract a minimum of 10,000 participants to better understand how hearing training impacts auditory processing skills like speech comprehension and the ability to locate where sounds are coming from.

Researchers are interested in the impact of hearing training on users who start training with different hearing ability levels, as well as training adherence in groups with different attitudes to smartphone technology.

Their aim is to find new ways to deliver and improve auditory training at scale and for a wider range of hearing skills; and to measure factors which influence training engagement.

The research is led by health tech firm Eargym. Co-founder Andy Shanks says:  Contrary to popular belief, hearing loss is not an inevitable consequence of ageing. We can take steps to improve and protect our hearing throughout our lives, yet preventative measures like hearing training have traditionally been under-researched.

“Our data shows the transformative impact hearing training can have on our ability to process sounds. Now, we want to deepen and widen our research and use our platform to make hearing training even more effective and accessible. Imagine improving and maintaining your hearing by up to 20% or more: it could make a big difference to the lives of so many people.”

The games on the Eargym app include a “busy barista” exercise, where users must discern speech over a cafe’s bustling background noise; and a “sound seeking” exercise, where users make their way through forests, jungles and oceans to locate the sources of different sounds. Each game is designed to be immersive and to help users practise specific auditory processing skills regularly.

Eargym was set up by former NHS CEO Amanda Philpott and DJ Andy Shanks in 2020, after they were both diagnosed with hearing loss. Amanda has moderate age related hearing loss, whilst Andy has “notch” or noise-induced hearing loss due to DJ-ing. Both found hearing loss isolating and it impacted their ability to socialise and communicate. They created eargym to empower others to better understand their hearing health and take proactive steps to protect it.

Hearing loss currently affects 18 million adults in the UK, with around one billion young people at risk of developing hearing loss due to increased use of headphones. Hearing loss is closely associated with increased dementia risk. Despite this, people wait an average ten years before seeking help for hearing loss.

Eargym plans to publish the findings of its research in early 2025.

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Interview: Exploring electrical stimulation for Parkinson’s disease

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The STEPS II study is investigating functional electrical stimulation (FES) in people with Parkinson’s disease to help improve their walking. Dr Paul Taylor, co-founder and Clinical Director of Odstock Medical Ltd (OML), spoke to Agetech World to tell us more.

Bradykinesia – slowness of movement which can lead to difficulty walking – affects many people living with Parkinson’s disease. The symptom can cause Parkinson’s patients to walk or move slowly, increasing the risk of falls, leading to a reduced quality of life and an increased dependence on others. 

Funded by the National Institute for Health and Care Research, sponsored by Salisbury NHS Foundation Trust, and managed by the University of Plymouth’s Peninsula Clinical Trials Unit, the STEPS II study is exploring the use of an FES device in Parkinson’s patients to help improve bradykinesia. 

The FES device, which has been pioneered by Salisbury researchers as a drop foot treatment for stroke and MS patients, is attached to the patient’s leg and produces small electrical impulses that improve movement.

“If you have Bradykinesia you’re moving slowly. The predominant treatment for Parkinson’s is medication and these can be very effective, but they have the problem of not working all the time,” explains Taylor, co-founder of Odstock Medical Ltd, a company owned by Salisbury NHS Foundation Trust.

”The effects of the drugs will wear off and after a period of time they become less effective, so, there’s a need for improvement.”

Taylor explains that deep brain stimulators are currently available, however, they are very invasive, expensive and can be risky. 

“We’re trying to do something which is a bit simpler and cheaper, which may possibly be able to help people at an earlier stage of Parkinson’s,” Taylor says.

“We’re stimulating the common peroneal nerve, which is the nerve that goes down the leg to the muscles, using a device called a drop foot stimulator. The device is commonly used for stroke and multiple sclerosis.”

A small feasibility study has already been conducted, which showed that FES can help patients walk faster and reduce some symptoms of Parkinson’s. 

In the STEPS II study, researchers hope to confirm the long-term effects of FES on walking speed and daily life with 234 participants at sites across Salisbury, Birmingham, Prestwick, Leeds, Swansea and Carlisle.

Taylor continues: “Our original idea was that we could use electrical stimulation to overcome freezing – which is the effect where people with Parkinson’s will stop walking, particularly when they come to doorways or very narrow areas. It’s to do with the processing of information from the outside world. 

“We wanted to see if we could use electrical stimulation to overcome that freezing and, to a certain extent, we did find that is the case for some patients, but more commonly and with a greater number of patients FES affected bradykinesia – speeding up their movement and helping with more effective walking.”

For the STEPS II study, participants will be randomised into a care as normal group, or a care as normal plus FES group. They will use the stimulator if they are in the FES group for 18 weeks, then the stimulator is taken away, with patients followed up one month later to see if the effects are continued.

Measurements of walking speed and movement will be analysed, along with sensory perception, balance, coordination, muscle strength, as well as secondary effects such as how the device impacts daily living and quality of life.

OML has established clinics around the country with trained therapists where the device will be used if the study is successful. 

“There’s a network of clinics already experienced in using the treatment so we plan to reach those clinics to include Parkinson’s patients in their cohorts,” says Taylor. “Then we’ll work with our contacts to see if we can get it overseas as well.”

OML is currently recruiting participants for the study, to find out more please visit: https://www.plymouth.ac.uk/research/penctu/steps-2 

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Quit Googling to stave off dementia onset, expert urges

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Resisting the temptation to search the web for information that could otherwise be recalled be exercising your brain could help to reduce the risk of dementia.

That is according to Canadian academic Professor Mohamed I. Elmasry who believes simple daily habits such as afternoon naps, memory ‘workouts’ and not reaching for a smartphone can increase the odds of healthy aging.

His new book, iMind: Artificial and Real Intelligence, says the focus has shifted too far away from RI (natural, or real) intelligence in favour of AI (machine, or artificial) intelligence. Elmasry instead calls us to nurture our human mind which, like smartphones, has ‘hardware’, ‘software’ and ‘apps’ but is many times more powerful – and will last much longer with the right care.

Professor Elmasry, an internationally recognised expert in microchip design and AI, was inspired to write the book after the death of his brother-in-law from Alzheimer’s and others very close to him, including his mother, from other forms of dementia.

Although he says that smart devices are ‘getting smarter all the time’, he argues in iMind that none comes close to ‘duplicating the capacity, storage, longevity, energy efficiency, or self-healing capabilities of the original human brain-mind’.

He writes that: “The useful life expectancy for current smartphones is around 10 years, while a healthy brain-mind inside a healthy human body can live for 100 years or longer.

“Your brain-mind is the highest-value asset you have, or will ever have. Increase its potential and longevity by caring for it early in life, keeping it and your body healthy so it can continue to develop.

“Humans can intentionally develop and test their memories by playing ‘brain games,’ or performing daily brain exercises. You can’t exercise your smartphone’s memory to make it last longer or encourage it to perform at a higher level.”

In iMind: Artificial and Real Intelligence Professor Elmasry shares an anecdote about his grandchildren having to use the search engine on their smartphones to name Cuba’s capital—they had just spent a week in the country with their parents.

The story illustrates how young people have come to rely on AI smartphone apps instead of using their real intelligence (RI), he says, adding: “A healthy memory goes hand-in-hand with real intelligence. Our memory simply can’t reach its full potential without RI.”

Published by Routledge, iMind: Artificial and Real Intelligence includes extensive background on the history of microchip design, machine learning and AI and their role in smartphones and other technology.

The book also explains how both AI and human intelligence really work, and how brain function links the mind and memory. It compares the human mind and brain function with that of smartphones, ChatGPT and other AI-based systems.

Drawing on comprehensive existing research, iMind aims to narrow the knowledge gap between real and artificial intelligence, to address the current controversy around AI, and to inspire researchers to find new treatments for Alzheimer’s, other neurodegenerative conditions and cancer.

It argues that current or even planned AI cannot match the capabilities of the human brain-mind for speed, accuracy, storage capacity and other functions. Healthy aging, Professor Elmasry notes, is as important as climate change but doesn’t attract a fraction of the publicity.

He calls for policymakers to adopt a series of key reforms to promote healthy aging. Among such changes, he suggests that bingo halls could transition from their sedentary entertainment function to become active and stimulating learning centers.

As well as napping to refresh our memories and other brain and body functions, he also outlines a series of practical tips to boost brain power and enhance our RI (Real Intelligence).

These include building up ‘associative’ memory – the brain’s ‘dictionary of meaning’ where it attaches new information to what it already knows. Try reading a book aloud, using all of your senses instead of going on autopilot and turning daily encounters into fully-lived experiences.

Other techniques include integrating a day for true rest into the week, reviewing your lifestyle as early as your 20s or 30s, adopting a healthy diet, and eliminating or radically moderating alcohol consumption to reduce the risk of dementia.

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