Researchers developing wearable sensor to predict epileptic seizures

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A group of Japanese researchers is developing a device in which a smartphone notifies epilepsy sufferers ahead of seizures via a sensor built into an undershirt that detects warning signs through fluctuations of the heart rhythm.

The group — comprised of researchers from Tokyo Medical and Dental University, Nagoya University and Kumamoto University — expects the device could prevent users from suffering serious injuries or being involved in accidents that result from a loss of consciousness.

It plans to conduct clinical tests on actual epilepsy patients as early as fiscal 2019.

Epilepsy seizures are the result of excessive electrical discharges in a group of brain cells. About 1 million people in Japan are believed to suffer from epilepsy. About 70 percent of patients are able to prevent seizures with medication, but the remaining 30 percent suffer from intractable epilepsy, in which their seizures are difficult to control with drugs.

Currently, treatment for intractable epilepsy is conducted by surgically removing the area of the brain that causes seizures. Another treatment is to mitigate seizures by sending electrical impulses to a nerve in the neck. However, these treatments come with the risk of side effects such as memory loss and one's voice becoming hoarse.

In developing the system, the group focused on the fact that the heart rate of epilepsy patients increases before seizures. It developed a sensor highly capable of detecting symptoms of epilepsy through abnormalities in the wave patterns in the heart rate that occur several minutes prior to seizures.

The group also developed a smartphone app that receives information from the sensor and alerts users with a warning sound and by vibrating.

Users need to wear a special undershirt designed for the system. The sensor, with its built-in battery and a little smaller than a human hand, is attached to the outside of the undershirt.

Three electrodes are built into the back side of the undershirt, thus not directly touching the skin. The electrodes are about the size of a 500 coin and measure the heart rate of users.

The group tested the system on seven patients in the development phase, and successfully detected seizures with an accuracy of 86 percent.

If patients are able to know the possibility of a seizure beforehand, they can rest for a while and avoid actions that might lead to injuries or accidents when seizures occur.

"This system imposes less burden to the patients' body and have little side effects," said Miho Miyajima, an assistant professor at Tokyo Medical and Dental University and a member of the study group.

"It can mitigate the mental burden of patients who go through their everyday lives in fear of seizures," said Miyajima, who specializes in liaison psychiatry and palliative medicine.

Said Kensuke Kawai, a Jichi Medical University professor who specializes in neurosurgery: "There are several hurdles to overcome in putting the system into practical use, such as recognizing the individual differences in the signs of seizures as well as improving the accuracy of predictions. However, the system can be expected to serve as a measure to prevent injuries and accidents (among patients)."

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