Scientists to develop wearable movement sensors for multiple sclerosis patients

27 September 2014

A new study at Imperial will be developing sensor technology to assess gait in progressive multiple sclerosis (MS) patients in their home environments.

A patient with MS being assessed for upper limb function by Dr Richard Nicholas  

If successful, this technology could boost efforts to evaluate new treatments, providing a new type of information for doctors and feedback to people with MS about their condition.

The study will be one of 22 projects in nine countries across the world aiming to discover effective ways of treating progressive forms of MS. Their launch was announced yesterday at a major MS conference in Boston, USA.

In progressive MS, symptoms get gradually worse with no remission and there is no treatment that can slow or stop the accumulation of disability. Across the world, more than a million people have progressive MS. Symptoms are different for everyone but commonly include problems with walking and balance.

When a patient with MS reports their symptoms to a clinician this provides only a small window onto their experience. Sensor systems have the potential to give continual information on movements, allowing details about gait, balance and activity to be determined. This could enable more meaningful assessments of therapies in real life home environments and provide valuable feedback to patients.

Professor Paul Matthews, Edmond and Lily Safra Chair in Translational Neuroscience and Head of the Division of Brain Sciences at Imperial College London, who is leading the study says, ''This international research effort directed towards progressive MS is an important start towards enabling more efficient development of treatments for the many people who are experiencing this form of the disease. My colleagues and I are committed and excited to be part of it.

"By using wearable sensors to monitor the patients as they go about their usual activities we are planning to get an in-depth and dynamic picture of their experience.  It would be much more meaningful than the crude 'snapshot' we see during a clinic visit.  This study will bring together unique expertise and experience from Imperial College London in both medicine and big data analysis to address better ways of understanding how treatments make a meaningful improvement in people's lives.''

The study is a collaboration between the Division of Brain Sciences and the Data Science Institute at Imperial College London. It aims to involve 40 patients, recruited through MS clinics at the Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust, who will wear 'watch-sized' sensors on a belt or in a position near to the body's centre of mass to monitor their movements over a year. By using Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, the study will collect moment-to-moment information on a patient's position and walking speed.

The Data Science Institute at Imperial College London will perform a vital role in collating and analysing the huge amounts of data that the study plans to produce and translating it into meaningful results to develop the technology. Professor Yike Guo from the Department of Computing and Director of the Data Science Institute at Imperial College London says, ''Data is the lifeblood of the 21st century and this is particularly apparent in the world of medicine where smart collection and communication has the power to save lives. The continual monitoring of patients over one year would provide a wealth of valuable data.  This would help develop the sensors and the systems to provide both clinicians and patients with information to evaluate treatments for progressive MS.''

The study aims to improve this wearable technology by adapting it specifically for patients with progressive MS. It also plans to produce a smartphone app to gather additional data from the patients on aspects such as their quality of life and develop a 'Wiki-Health' cloud-based system that allows patients to see their data in a secure area.

The project is part of the largest-ever global effort aiming to discover effective treatments for progressive MS and new ways of assessing their impact. Collectively the projects cost more than 17.5 million and funding for them has been made available from the UK MS Society and MS charities in the USA, Canada, Australia, Italy and the MS International Federation, with additional support from MS charities in Spain and Denmark, all working together under the banner of the 'Progressive MS Alliance'.

Michelle Mitchell, chief executive of the MS Society in the UK, saidys, ''We know that people desperately want more effective treatments for progressive MS and by working with MS charities across the world, we hope to achieve this. We are delighted to be co-funding this study at Imperial, which could help us measure and track disability in people with progressive MS.''

Of the 22 projects funded by the Progressive MS Alliance, four are in the UK.  It's hoped the global funding provided by the Progressive MS Alliance will speed up research into the condition, as scientists will be able to share knowledge and expertise, and will avoid duplicating work. Collectively, the charities involved are also able to fund more and bigger, expensive projects compared to if they were working in isolation.

When the project's procedures have been reviewed and confirmed, more information on recruitment will become available.

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