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The way in which people walk can reveal a lot about their health. A group of Spanish researchers is testing sensors that generate information. This will help diagnose and track the progress of degenerative diseases, all from the way a person walks. 

In order to achieve this, these mobile sensors are placed in the footwear of patients. They then register information, such as walking speed, step length, arm swing time, standing time, how high the foot lifts off the ground, gait symmetry, and the variability in any of these parameters. All these movement patterns are used to detect evolving degenerative diseases. 

The team of scientists in charge of this project hail from the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), the Centre for Automation and Robotics (CAR), and the Polytechnic University of Madrid (UPM) in Spain. Although the initiative is also part of the Next Perception EU project. This a larger project whose goal is “to develop next-generation smart perception sensors and enhance the distributed intelligence paradigm to build versatile, secure, reliable, and proactive human monitoring solutions for the health, wellbeing, and automotive domains.”

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Short Physical Performance Test and Timed Up and Go Test

Dr. Antonio Jimenéz, who heads the team, explained to Innovation Origins how the idea for developing this technology was born. “Currently, geriatric hospitals have methods in place to assess frailty and detect risks of falls. However, these methods [Short Physical Performance Test (SPPB) and Timed Up and Go Test] both have a subjective component. They require a lot of consultation time. But when patients are being supervised by a doctor, they tend to try harder and get better results than they would do in their everyday lives. That is why we propose making a light, cheap, and objective system. One that can be used during the patient’s natural, everyday walk, even at home. This will allow us to obtain more realistic results and reduce consultation times.”

Dr Antonio Jimenéz (right) and Dr Fernando Seco GranjaFrom the CISC. ® Antonio Jimenéz

How much can be revealed by the way someone walks

Many scientific studies state that walking styles can be indicative of physical, physiological, neurological, and even psychological conditions. Data about walking speed, cadence (steps/minute), and step length already provide plenty of information about a person’s frailty, said Jimenéz. “If on top of this, we add all the other movement patterns as mentioned above, accurate diagnosis rates can be further refined and increased.”

Frailty syndrome is a common condition among older adults. It entails a “recognizable state of increased vulnerability resulting from an aging-associated decline in faculties and functions across multiple physiological systems to the extent that the ability to cope with everyday or acute stressors is compromised.” One of the main health risks associated with frailty are falls. These can cause severe consequences, especially for older adults. 

Jimenéz said that frailty “is a disease that can be diagnosed in the main by looking at the level of physical activity, strength, speed, movement, and other aspects related to low energy or weight loss in older adults.” Therefore, this is the core condition that the research team is currently focusing on. 

Smart shoes

The results will be used to improve the procedures used in evaluating the origins and treatments of degenerative motor diseases. The lead scientist mentioned that they will also help with degenerative mental conditions. That is because there could be a correlation in a multitude of cases. 

Additionally, “these strategies based on “smart shoes” can be used to classify any activities carried out by a person in their home. This would be based on their assumed movement and positions. This means that their daily activities can be monitored. Plus, as a preventive measure, they can get advice on how to improve their dynamic movement. Applications exist for other areas too. Such as sports (optimization of jumps, running, etc.), or even for monitoring rescue teams intervening inside buildings (firefighters in burning or semi-collapsed buildings).” 

Results

The preliminary results for the project are expected in approximately 24 months. However, Jimenéz clarified that the research is a medium-long-term task with ongoing improvements and innovations that provide the team with enough work for at least another decade. 

Nonetheless, as is the case with a lot of research, money is a determining factor for when results can be produced. “The pace of progress depends on the public subsidies we receive, either at a national or a European level. This allows us to hire staff or keep the existing team members. As well as take advantage of the knowledge that is generated. Private financing from companies that may want to exploit the results would accelerate the development. Yet that is somewhat more difficult to get when they don’t see any benefits and returns in the short term.”

The research is now in its very early stages. However, according to Jimenéz, the preliminary results are quite promising. Nevertheless, the size, autonomy, and ease of use of the technology all need to be improved. And of course, the team is planning to experiment with larger groups of patients from referral hospitals in the future.

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