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How Does Assistive Technology Help People Living With Brain Disease?

Assistive technology can help people with disabilities due to brain disease maintain or improve their quality of life. Learn how research is driving advancements in different types of assistive technology for neurologic disorders.

Brain diseases create a substantial burden for individuals and their families, and a single diagnosis often impacts many different aspects of daily life. In addition to the impact of physical symptoms, brain disease can affect an individual and their loved ones socially, emotionally, and financially. Many people with a disabling brain disease may benefit from assistive technology that enhances their quality of life by helping them maintain mobility, participate socially, and perform essential daily activities.

Improved assistive technology is crucial in addressing the range of challenges faced by people living with brain disease. By investing in research and developing more effective assistive technologies, we can make significant strides toward alleviating the challenges posed by brain diseases and improving the overall well-being of individuals and their support networks.

What Is Assistive Technology?

Assistive technology enables people with disabilities to perform certain tasks and activities that may be unmanageable without additional help. For people with brain diseases like Alzheimer’s or traumatic brain injury (TBI), assistive technology may improve quality of life by serving as a memory aid or helping keep track of important information and daily tasks. For someone with Parkinson’s or another movement disorder, assistive devices may be equipment that helps them interact with their home or perform tasks that have become difficult due to mobility-related symptoms.

There are many types of assistive devices available, ranging from simple items like pill organizers and calendar reminders to high-tech wearable devices like deep brain stimulation and computerized memory aids. By offering additional support and promoting independence, assistive technology enables people with disabilities due to brain disease to participate more fully in their home, work, and social lives.

Disabilities Caused by Brain Disease

According to the World Health Organization, neurological disorders are the leading cause of disability worldwide — yet people with disabilities still face many barriers to care. The need for more accessibility and awareness around disabilities associated with neurologic disorders is so great that last year’s World Brain Day was organized around the theme “Brain Health and Disability.”

There are hundreds of brain diseases that can cause disabling symptoms. These disabilities greatly affect a person’s quality of life and often create barriers that keep them from engaging in meaningful communication with loved ones, limit their ability to participate in public spaces, and prevent them from living independently. For example, challenges communicating — which often get worse over time in diseases like ALS or FTD — can result in feelings of isolation and frustration for both individuals and their families. Additionally, many public spaces are not accessible for people with mobility issues, which may lead to a heightened sense of exclusion and loneliness. 

Below are some examples of the kinds of disabilities caused by neurologic disorders. 

Mobility Issues: Movement disorders like Parkinson’s disease and tremor often lead to impaired motor function, restricting a person’s ability to move freely and independently. For example, Ruth has orthostatic tremor, a rare movement disorder characterized by rapid muscle tremors in the legs and torso. It causes unsteadiness, exhaustion, pain, and muscle stiffness, and symptoms tend to get worse over time, meaning many people like Ruth eventually need mobility aids and help from caretakers. 

Memory Problems: Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia can result in memory loss and difficulty retaining and recalling information, which may impact daily activities.

Speech and Communication Challenges: Brain diseases like ALS affect the ability to verbally communicate thoughts and impact a person’s speech.

Emotional and Behavioral Changes: Brain diseases can result in emotional and behavioral symptoms, affecting one’s ability to engage in social activities and relationships. This happened to Courtney, who was diagnosed with TBI as a child and epilepsy as a teenager. She often avoided social activities like school dances because she was afraid of having seizures, and she has struggled with anxiety and depression related to her diagnoses since she was a teen.

Cognitive Decline: Progressive difficulty with thinking may impact decision-making abilities, problem-solving skills, and overall mental functioning, making routine tasks challenging.

Addressing these obstacles requires a comprehensive approach that takes into account issues of accessibility and disparities in neurologic care. However, advancements in assistive technology are one way to offer people living with disabilities due to brain disease a greater ability to communicate and participate in public life. 

Types of Assistive Devices

There are many different types of assistive devices, ranging from extremely simple to advanced technology. Assistive devices are often categorized by the type of accommodation or assistance they provide. Below are a few different types of assistive devices and some examples of each. 

Home Modifications 

Home modifications help people with mobility issues — often due to Parkinson’s, ALS, SMA, other movement disorders, and TBI — move around, complete daily tasks, and operate safely within their own homes. Home modifications may include things like tub and shower chairs, adaptive utensils, non-skid dishes, reach extenders, medication organizers, mechanical lifts, automatic page-turners, and more. 

Many of these devices may seem simple, but they offer important modifications that enable people to live more independently. This takes some burden off of their caretakers and may even make the difference between continuing to live in their home versus having to enter an assisted living facility.

Wearables and Prosthetics 

Wearables and prosthetics can serve many different purposes, but the main goal is to give people more independence, both at home and in public spaces, and to improve quality of life. Wearables can be noninvasive — as simple as wearing a smartwatch that tracks certain symptoms or vital signs — or may need to be surgically implanted in the body.

One notable example of recent advancements in prosthetic technology for brain disease is a speech device designed to help people with ALS communicate. ALS is a neurodegenerative disease that attacks nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord that control muscle movement. In later stages of the disease, the muscles responsible for speech are so weakened that people with ALS eventually lose the ability to talk. However, recent studies have shown success with new prosthetic devices that can be implanted into the brain to translate brain patterns into audible speech.

Deep brain stimulation (DBS) devices are another example of wearable assistive technology that offers benefits for people with brain disease. DBS involves implanting electrodes into specific areas of the brain. The electrodes are controlled by a device, similar to a pacemaker, that sits under the skin of the upper chest and creates electrical signals that affect certain brain cells. Currently, DBS is often used to treat or monitor diseases that do not respond to medication, such as Parkinson’s or drug-resistant epilepsy. 

Some recently developed wearables can detect tonic-clonic seizures, a specific type of seizure that can increase the risk of SUDEP (sudden unexpected death in epilepsy). These devices alert a person with epilepsy that they are about to have a seizure, enabling them to prepare and take precautions, potentially saving their life.

Memory Devices

Memory devices help people with Alzheimer’s, dementia, or difficulty with thinking and mental processes related to TBI to maintain their independence and quality of life. Memory devices can be extremely simple and low-tech, such as memory stations that contain a person’s essential items like a wallet, keys, phone, and medications. In some cases, assistive memory devices may be more high-tech, like automatic calendars, automatic pill dispensers, and smart devices like Alexa or Google Home that help set reminders and keep track of grocery lists and various other daily tasks.

Advancing Assistive Technology Through Research

Assistive technology is a crucial tool in helping individuals navigate the challenges and disabilities created by brain disease. By investing in research that advances assistive technology, we not only enhance the quality of life for individuals facing these challenges but also pave the way for a more inclusive and supportive society. 

The American Brain Foundation knows that when we find the cure for one brain disease, we will find cures for many others. Learn more about the brain disease research we fund, or donate today to support the cures and treatments of tomorrow.