Can you teach an old brain new tricks? | PDD

Can you teach an old brain new tricks?


on July 24 2014

Heart failure, Stroke, Cancer, Dementia, Malaria, Bird Flu or even Ebola – take your pick from the latest challenges in world health. Each account of these relative pandemics sweeping societies across the globe allude to being your next arch enemy, ‘the one you need to watch out for’. At the time of writing this blog, five of the major newspapers featured health related headlines including ‘Dementia patients cut loose’, ‘500,000 denied cancer drug’, ‘Statins health risk’, and ‘Superbugs will send us to the dark ages’ – it is clear that health is high on the public radar.

There are a few however which always top the list. They say one in three of us will contract cancer in our lifetime, and as one of the Western world’s greatest fears it has accrued the funding and governmental support of upwards of £600m per year (2010 report, BBC news Dec 2013). Dementia on the other hand is increasing rapidly with more than 800,000 people in the UK alone developing the condition; and as the population becomes older, various reports cry of a future crisis considering the budgets devoted to research lie at a comparatively measly £50m per year.

Image credit: Action for Ageing. Feature image credit: SPES

With these distinctly ‘first world problems’ we can scarcely compare them to those affected in developing nations; staggering figures for malaria suggest that over 300m people per year are infected, nearly 3m of these die – most of which are children (Wellcome trust malaria statistics) and it costs Africa upwards of £12billion per year. For those of a more business related mindset surely this is a prospective goldmine?

From a design and engineering approach unfortunately many of these conditions are far out of reach and lie in the hands of the geneticists and biochemists at the forefront of medical research, so where can we help the most? Strokes are not the most publicised of conditions, nor are they commonly discussed or publicised; often being attributed to poor lifestyle such as smoking and diet. However, they might be one of few conditions where technology can assist recovery and aid a return to a normal life. Prevention is of course the preferred route; we are told to eat kale, or drink less fizz, or even take specific vitamins to prevent such illnesses. A recent article in the New Scientist even documented the benefits of learning a new language to combat Alzheimer’s – with staggering results (read it here) .

These things are cheap and easy – so we might as well try, but I’m sure there are more varieties of Omega-3 products on the shelves than toothpastes! Try we must and we hope that our life choices improve our quality of life and reduce risk – but these things often happen without prior cause or warning and rehabilitation is high on the agenda for those affected. If money talks, then the cost of over £2.8billion to the NHS from strokes alone should ruffle some feathers! (Statistic from National Audit Office).

Image credit: Omega3 Innovations

You might question my choice of topic focus, and you would be right to – my hidden agenda lies in my past experience in researching assertive aids for stroke victims from a mechanical design perspective, culminating in virtual dynamic simulations of centrifugal braking systems for walking frames. Very mechanically orientated (and quite a mouthful!), but hey if it helps people and there is a market for it then surely that is a win-win for any design engineer? I have lost count of the so called ‘save the world’ design projects for yet another diabetic aid, third world lighting, or water conservation; sensational and easy to publicise – yes, but do they ever come to fruition? …I’ll leave that to you to judge.

The brain is a staggering piece of engineering, almost none of which we actually understand fully – sort of like quantum physics, “if you think you understand it, you don’t understand it” or so goes the saying. Not a week goes by without an article in the New Scientist about either the mysteries of the brain or the universe – usually one or the other. Strokes are caused by either a clot of a bleed in the brain which leads to excessive internal pressure or blood deprivation to areas of the brain, which can die as a result. The ramifications of which can range from minor temporary loss of speech or sensory faculties, all the way to partial & full paralysis. Those survivors who suffer the long term effects are often left with limited movement on one side and difficulty communicating – but the magic of the brain is still plastic enough, even in old age, to reprogram its-self to re-purpose other areas to fill the gaps lost by the event. I recall watching a documentary recently showing a young boy who had almost 50% of his brain tissue removed due to severe epilepsy – the result after a few years was nothing more than a minor loss of sensation on one side, the remaining brain had entirely reprogrammed itself to function as normally as possible – utterly fascinating!

In very young toddlers this is generally more successful, but what if you are elderly – can you still teach an old brain new tricks? Yes, but with the help of intense physiotherapy, interaction and specialist equipment – surely an open market for intense design research and user centric assistive products? Well this one is tricky as they are not really classed as consumer products so don’t have the same level of PR push for sales, and government or NHS funds are often higher for the more immediate threats (as touched on in the introduction). So how can these products be funded? How can they gain traction?

It appears that current solutions exist in two distinct categories: the ‘basics’ range (functional, cheap, unattractive, simple), and ‘engineered’ (mechanical, expensive, complex, and also unattractive!).

L-R image Credit: NRS-UK, Saebo

Why should a generally older population be denied the dignity of having access to stylish AND functional rehabilitation aids? Many would argue that there simply isn’t the demand or funding to support supposedly frivolous design exercises, and this is very unfortunate. Kingpins of business in Silicon Valley preach of success attributed to creating products that people want, but I would like to see more of a drive for the creation of products that people need! Maybe a pipe dream of my naïve younger-self looking to create products for the greater good – after all, who fanaticises about creating high volume-short lifespan ‘land-fill fodder’ for a living? Certainly not me – and if this area is as beneficial and lucrative as the figures suggest then there should be nothing stopping us.

Wonderful developments in deep brain stimulation, and mind controlled robotics have led to innovation marvels such as the robotic prosthetic arm, created by the inventor of the Segway to aid veterans of the Iraq war.

Image credit: Extreme Tech

FDA approved, heavily publicised, incredible to look at and fascinating engineering all wrap this up in a neat ball of wonder, and I hope it prospers for those who it might benefit. Government reports show recent conflicts have given rise to 198 amputees returning from service, and whilst a terrible injury to live with and fully deserved of the aid – why can this technology not also branch out to the wider population?

So what are the opportunities you might ask? Rehabilitation and support is a major cost factor – the majority occurring during extended hospital stays or under close supervision of occupational therapists, all at vast expense. What if people could rehabilitate themselves, in their own home, with dignity and empowerment over their treatment? Tasks such as this revolve mainly around posture, balance, and movement re-training which can be dangerous to attempt unsupervised. We all know of the risks of having a fall at old age and safety is of utmost priority! Companies such as Able-X (in partnership with the Stroke Association) offer modern alternatives to traditional rehabilitation aids using computers as a base to turn exercises into enjoyable games. With many elderly people using tablet computers perhaps there is more to be done along these lines:

Image credit: AbleX

Other examples of more advanced wearable technology come in the form of electronic muscle stimulation devices, often controlled by a detachable hub like this great hand-paralysis ‘re-education’ system from Bioness:

Image credit: Bioness

If you ever thought of a classic opportunity for highly technical design coupled with a potentially lucrative return of investment then I cannot think of a better niche. Aging populations, advances in technology, lower cost manufacturing, and international support for health improvement could all help causes such as this. So do I have the answer? Well that would be telling; I like to think that we can contribute to worthy causes such as this which benefit both humanity and the economy.