WATERLOO — The Advanced Aging Research Centre at the University of Waterloo partnered with a startup called Pervasive Dynamics to develop wearable technologies that will help people recover from strokes, falls and accidents.
Muhammad Khan, the founder of Pervasive Dynamics, makes customized devices that are worn on the body to monitor movements, breathing, pulse, stress and a raft of other signs.
For nearly 20 years Khan studied computer science and computer systems engineering. While doing his master’s degree in England he worked on improving electrocardiographs or ECGs. During his doctoral studies he focused on telematics, or the wireless transmission of data.
“After that, I thought if we could combine medical science with telematics it could open up a whole new area,” Khan said.
After finishing a master’s in business entrepreneurship and technology at the University of Waterloo, he moved his startup into the Accelerator Centre in the David Johnston Research and Technology Park.
The timing was excellent.
In a nearby building called Tech Town, the Advanced Aging Research Centre was setting up with the help of a $1.3-million grant. The grant from the Canadian Institute of Health Research was for the development of a variety of diagnostic and measurement tools.
One of the lead researchers there is Bill McIlroy, a neurophysiologist who teaches in the department of kinesiology. McIlroy’s research is about helping people fully recover their balance and mobility after suffering strokes.
When he heard about the wearable sensors developed by Khan, the two started working together. And Wednesday a formal partnership between the startup and the research centre was announced to develop and test wearable technologies for the applied health sector.
Up to now, wearable technologies focused on fitness, diets and exercise, or sounding an alert for incoming emails.
Now, Khan and McIlroy’s research will take the technology into one of the fastest-growing areas of applied health — rehabilitation for people who had strokes. About 50,000 elderly Canadians have strokes every year.
“I would say it is an emerging and important priority for our work,” McIlroy said.
The technology will also be used to help elderly people recover from falls, which cost the health care system $2 billion a year.
These figures are expected to increase. By 2030 about 25 per cent of Canadians, or eight million people, will be more than 65 years of age.
Khan’s device has sensors on each leg, the chest and wrists. The sensors provide detailed information on heart rates, the speed and direction of limbs, stress and breathing. The data is sent to the clinician’s office, where it can be assessed in real time.
McIlroy said that will allow clinicians to extend their assessments into homes, 24 hours a day, rather than just the 30 minutes a day in a stroke rehabilitation program.
“Historically that was pretty hard to do,” McIlroy said.
Therapists and clinicians are interested in the symmetry of walking. A person should not favour one arm or leg while walking. But stroke victims often do, and that can lead to long-term damage to muscles and bones, permanently impairing their mobility.
“The symmetry of walking, you can observe it visually, but you can also record it with these wearable devices,” McIlroy said. “So we try to train them to improve their walking symmetry over time.”
Khan hopes his sensors and monitors can be used by the public and health-care workers to reduce the impact of an aging population on the health-care system. Prototyping will occur in the Advanced Aging Research Centre.
“Their researchers will design the requirements — what should the system produce?” Khan said. “And we build the devices to fill those requirements.”
It will take about two more years of work in the research and development lab at the Advanced Aging Research Centre before the devices are ready for the market.
“That will give us a footprint and space to advance these technologies a bit more rapidly,” McIlroy said of the centre. “The tech experts and the clinicians are in the same space, working on the projects together.”