Thursday, 23 May, 2024

Can this smart sock tech help people living with dementia?

Milbotix’s smart socks – that don’t need to be charged – can monitor wearers’ heart rates and anxiety levels, alerting caregivers before their distress escalates.

A young inventor quit his job and took up studies at the University of Bristol Robotics Laboratory, so he could help people with dementia. He came up with a unique wearable technology geared towards people living with dementia: socks.

Why did Zeke Steer quit his job?

The reason was personal: Dr Zeke Steer’s great-grandmother was diagnosed with dementia and would become agitated and aggressive. Her gentle nature gave way to sharp outbursts, and she even went as far as to say that Steer’s grandmother (her daughter) was stealing from her.

Steer, a UK citizen, left his job as a software engineer in the defence industry and decided to investigate how wearable technologies and artificial intelligence (AI) could help alleviate his great-grandmother’s dementia symptoms.

What did Steer do?

Steer remembers his great-grandmother, Kath, as a “gentle and sociable” woman who enjoyed jazz music – but dementia had taken her mental faculties from her to a considerable extent: “Several years after her dementia diagnosis, she became prone to bouts of aggression which placed tremendous strain on my family.”

That’s why he decided to look into how wearable technologies and AI could help with his great-grandmother's symptoms.

While he was at graduate school, Steer volunteered at a dementia care home operated by the St Monica Trust, Garden House at Cote Lane. He learned that his great-grandmother’s behaviour wasn’t unique to her.

While he was volunteering there, Steer came upon the idea of Milbotix –– a wearables company he launched in February 2020. "I came to see that my great grandmother wasn't an isolated episode, and that distressed behaviours are very common," he explained.

What are smart socks?

The smart socks look and feel like normal socks; are machine washable and don’t need to be charged – yet they are able to track heart rate, sweat levels and motion that gives feedback as to how a person’s feeling. The person’s anxiety level can be monitored by caregivers who look at an app that generates data from the socks.

At the moment, there are other options to monitor stress levels by measuring heart rate and sweat, but these wearables are wrist straps that can stigmatise patients or create more stress for the wearer.

Steer said: "The foot is actually a great place to collect data about stress, and socks are a familiar piece of clothing that people wear every day.

"Our research shows that the socks can accurately recognise signs of stress—which could really help not just those with dementia and autism, but their caregivers too."

What do people think about Steer’s work?

“Zeke’s passion was clear from his first day with us and he worked closely with staff, relatives and residents to better understand the effects and treatment of dementia.

“We were really impressed at the potential of his assisted technology to predict impending agitation and help alert staff to intervene before it can escalate into distressed behaviours,” Garden House Care Home Manager, Fran Ashby said.

"Using modern assistive technology examples like smart socks can help enable people living with dementia to retain their dignity and have better quality outcomes for their day-to-day life.”

Professor Judith Squires, Deputy Vice-Chancellor at the University of Bristol, said: "It is fantastic to see Zeke using the skills he learnt with us to improve the well-being of some of those most in need.

"The innovative research that Zeke has undertaken has the potential to help millions live better lives. We hope to see Milbotix flourish."

How about some facts and figures?

In the UK alone, there will be 1.6 million people with dementia, according to charity Alzheimer’s Society. The charity also says every three minutes, one person will be developing dementia. Dementia is believed to cost the country $42.79 billion every year.

On the other hand, autism affects 1 percent of the UK population, which is approximately 700,000 people, according to the UK Government, 15 to 30 percent of whom face difficulty in communicating their feelings verbally.

“In 2022, Alzheimer's and other dementias will cost the [United States] $321 billion, including $206 billion in Medicare and Medicaid payments combined,” Alzheimer’s Association notes. The not-for-profit organisation also says that more than 6 million Americans are living with Alzheimer's, and that by 2050, this number is projected to rise to nearly 13 million.

What are Milbotix’s plans for the future?

Steer is now working on expanding his business. He is testing the socks with people living with mid- to late-stage dementia, and developing the technology before the socks go out into the commercial world next year. Milbotix is expected to begin a funding round later in 2022.

Alzheimer’s Society’s Accelerator Programme will be supporting Milbotix by helping fund the wearable technology’s development, providing innovation support and helping test the socks.

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