Learn how recent advancements in wearable technology are helping manage brain diseases and conditions like epilepsy and tinnitus.
For years, wearable technology has been used to improve people’s general health—users can track their daily steps, see how well they’re sleeping, monitor their heart rate during exercise, and more. However, the latest advancements are pushing wearable tech even further to help people manage a range of brain diseases and disorders.
We hosted a webinar discussion about wearable technology with David Eagleman, PhD, adjunct professor at Stanford University, and Gregory Krauss, MD, professor of neurology at Johns Hopkins University. They spoke about the current impact of wearable tech on brain disease treatment and offered insights on possible future applications and who may benefit from using this technology.
What Is Wearable Technology?
Wearable technology is a general term for electronic devices designed to be worn throughout the day. Also called wearables, these devices can take the form of watches, jewelry, sensors, or even patches that go on the skin.
Wearable devices may gather health data to help individuals and doctors monitor a health condition or alert caregivers in an emergency. Other types of wearables help people track symptoms or regulate medication use. Much of the current generation of this technology uses the internet to connect to other devices like computers and smartphones so users can monitor their health data via an app.
Current wearable technology differs from many of the existing neuromodulation devices on the market—like those used in deep brain stimulation—in that they are less invasive and do not directly affect or alter a person’s brain or body functions. However, as wearables become more compact and programming capabilities become more complex, they are increasingly being used for non-invasive neuromodulation for a range of diseases and disorders.
What Are the Medical Applications of Wearable Technology?
The medical community has largely embraced wearable technology for its ability to continuously monitor vital signs and offer innovative new treatment options for conditions that are difficult to manage. Individuals like wearable tech because it provides easy access to their health data and can keep them more informed and empowered in their own treatment. These devices have several major benefits: they are non-invasive, user-friendly, cost-effective, and offer a more tailored approach to managing health conditions.
Wearables can also aid in diagnosis because they give doctors access to more accurate, comprehensive data about a person’s symptoms. Additionally, they can record events the wearer may not be aware of, such as heartbeat irregularities or sleep problems.
This ability to continuously monitor a wide range of symptoms and other health data also impacts treatment. Data can be used to note disruptions to healthy functioning, recognize biological or behavioral patterns, and create predictions about health outcomes for each individual. Wearable technology can also function as treatment equipment to alleviate symptoms and improve quality of life.
How Does Wearable Technology Help Treat Brain Disease?
The advancement of wearable technology is especially exciting when it comes to brain health. Often small, lightweight, and easy to use, these devices can reliably reveal a more comprehensive picture of an individual’s overall brain health.
Brain diseases and disorders are complex, and because each person’s brain is different, the causes, symptoms, and outlook for a given disease will vary from person to person. Wearable devices provide accurate and objective data for each individual—allowing for treatment planning that is much more personalized and effective than relying on generalized information or self-reported data (which can be biased and inaccurate). Wearable technology also allows individuals and their doctors to more frequently reassess their current course of treatment.
Wearable Technology for Epilepsy
Recent developments in wearable technology have had a significant impact on epilepsy treatment. Dr. Krauss notes how helpful wearables can be for seizure detection, increasing safety and independence for people with epilepsy. There are several of these types of devices on the market, most of which are a wristband or smartwatch.These devices can reduce potential injuries by detecting a seizure in advance and transmitting a warning to the individual and caregivers.
Some devices also prompt individuals to respond to surveys immediately following a seizure, which can help identify potentially avoidable seizure triggers in the future. “There’s a variety of things that can increase risk for seizures, [including] stress, exhaustion, and menstrual periods with hormonal changes,” says Dr. Krauss. “This helps patients identify these things.”
Wearable technology can also identify someone’s risk for sudden unexpected death in epilepsy (SUDEP) and aid in prevention. SUDEP refers to death in people with epilepsy during or right after a seizure. It is thought to be caused by breathing problems, heart rhythm changes, or a combination of both. Having a certain type of seizure, called a tonic-clonic seizure, increases the risk of SUDEP.
“We have [wearables] that can specifically detect tonic-clonic seizures, log them, and warn patients and caregivers about their occurrence,” says Dr. Krauss. This is a potentially major application of this technology, as it can help doctors and caregivers monitor an individual for this elevated risk of SUDEP and take precautions.
Wearables for Hearing Loss and Tinnitus
Dr. Eagleman’s fascination with how the brain receives and processes sensory information led him to develop a wristband that enables people who are deaf to experience sounds. The wristband captures sound through a microphone and then translates it into specific vibrations. Over time, the person’s brain learns how to match certain sounds to different vibration patterns.
The success of this wristband led Dr. Eagleman to develop other versions of similar wearable technology: one for hearing loss associated with aging and another for tinnitus (a ringing or buzzing noise in the inner ear). The tinnitus wristband pairs with a phone app to enable bimodal stimulation, which means using two different types of sensory stimulation at the same time. In this case, the combination of sound and touch retrains the brain’s neural networks, and the brain learns to distinguish external sounds from internal sounds, which reduces tinnitus over time.
Future Applications for Wearable Technology
Problems with balance can naturally arise as people get older, but they can also stem from traumatic brain injury (TBI) and movement disorders such as Parkinson’s disease. Dr. Eagleman is working on a project to address these balance problems through wearable tech. “We built a collar clip with a nine-axis motion detector in it,” he explains. “That talks to a wristband via Bluetooth—so if you tilt, the collar clip tells the wristband how much and in which direction you’re tilting.” For people whose ability to detect balance has been impaired, this information enables someone to correct their balance and avoid possible injury.
Researchers are currently exploring whether wearable tech can alleviate tremor, a disorder that causes shaking or unsteady movements. Tremor can develop independently or as the result of another condition, such as multiple sclerosis, stroke, TBI, or Parkinson’s disease. Dr. Eagleman explains that tremor is due to the mistiming of movement signals coming from and returning to the brain. Researchers are testing whether wearable technology providing stimulation at the right moment can override these mistimed signals and reduce tremor.
Dr. Eagleman believes that soon wristbands will also be able to address another symptom of Parkinson’s disease called freezing of gait (FoG), in which a person is suddenly unable to walk. Dr. Eagleman published data showing that auditory rhythms can alleviate FoG. Though more research is needed, he suspects that signals from a wristband will be able to yield the same results.
Wearable technology has made considerable advancements in the last decade—and there is so much more potential on the horizon. With more research, wearable tech can offer better treatment options and significantly improve the quality of life for people with brain diseases and disorders.
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