This fall, scientists in Nebraska will begin monitoring a group of individuals carrying special cell phones programmed by a professor and students at Randolph College.
The phones will track the users’ every move: when they get up, how many steps they take, whether they leave the house, and how much time they spend sitting down. The study will determine if the data collected by the technology will help doctors better treat patients with Alzheimer’s.
The clinical trial is funded by a $200,000 grant awarded by the Alzheimer’s Association to Schenk and Stephen Bonasera, a researcher at the University of Nebraska. It is the first Alzheimer’s study that uses mobile monitoring to determine whether a patient is getting better or worse, Schenk said.
Using mobile monitoring to improve health care has been a long-standing dream for Schenk. In recent years, cell phone technology has helped make Schenk’s ideas possible; accelerometers and GPS features have become common on mobile phones.
Two years ago, she and Bonasera involved Randolph students Thawda Aung ’13 and Jim Kwon ’14 in the project. Kwon spent last summer in Nebraska developing an algorithm that uses a phone’s accelerometer to accurately measure a person’s gait speed and activity level. Aung wrote a cell phone program that sends the accelerometer information and analyzes it with Kwon’s algorithm.
“It’s so unusual for an undergraduate student to be involved in research to the level they are right now,” Schenk said. “Thawda and Jim already have made major contributions to the project.”
The Alzheimer ’s medical application is just the first to be studied. The team has identified ways to use the technology to help patients with bipolar disorder, depression, or diabetes. “We have a lot of ideas for how to develop this program into something more universal,” Kwon said.
The students know their technology could make a significant difference in the medical field. “If we deploy the system perfectly, it could save people’s lives,” Aung said.
To Schenk, what this project has provided to her students is just as important as the research itself. She left a previous teaching position because the school limited its student research to upperclassmen. All students at Randolph are encouraged to participate in research.
“I treat my students as colleagues,” Schenk said. “I feel like you can make a really big difference in their ability to become scientists by getting them involved in research projects as early as possible.”