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RFID Helps Diagnose Early Dementia

A system developed by researchers at the University of South Florida wanted to determine if an RFID-based system could be used as a diagnosis tool by tracking and analyzing a patient's movements.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
Jan 14, 2009In Greek mythology, Hermes acted as a messenger, relaying information between humans and the gods, while also protecting boundaries. That makes him an apt namesake for the Health Research Management and Evaluation System, or HERMES—a preventative health-care system developed at the University of South Florida that has already been tested at one assisted-living facility and is currently being evaluated at another. The system uses radio frequency identification to track residents' movements. These movement patterns are then mined for clues that could indicate early stages of dementia.

A large body of research links wandering behaviors with dementia. In fact, the tendency of individuals suffering from various forms of the disease to wander from their homes is one major reason their families place them in assisted-living facilities or nursing homes, where they can be closely monitored. RFID is already being employed increasingly within these facilities, where the technology can be combined with an alarm system designed to prevent residents from leaving the facilities unaccompanied.

At the Shady Palms assisted-living facility, participating residents wore a battery-powered RFID tag on their wrists.

However, William Kearns, an assistant professor in the University of South Florida's department of aging and mental health, wanted to determine if RFID could also be utilized as a tool for the early diagnosis of dementia. The result of this research is HERMES, for which Kearns—along with an USF colleague, James Fozard, and Ted Kostis, an RFID entrepreneur and the president of Silent Partner Technologies, which develops RFID tracking solutions—has filed a patent. The system, which uses a combination of RFID hardware and software, has been tested at the Shady Palms assisted-living facility in Tampa, Fla., and is currently being evaluated at a second facility in that city.

"The human [body] is a marvelously expressive organism," Kearns says. "It produces sounds, it moves, it emotes." The professor's work, therefore, is focused on studying how our bodies communicate changes in our aging minds. "It's reasonable to assume that variations in patterns of movement are indicative to pathological changes in the mind."

At the heart of the HERMES system is a computer program that scans patterns in a person's movements, over time, within a monitored area. The RFID system then feeds that location data into the program. The goal is to identify patterns showing that an individual is beginning to wander when moving through the monitored area. "Basically, we're looking at the tendency for individuals to walk in other than a straight line," Kearns explains. "We use higher-order mathematics to identify and analyze the walking patterns."

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