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Technology Solutions for Age-Related Ills

Devices on the horizon aim to help Alzheimer's, dementia patients

Technology innovation

— Simon Dawson/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Robert Margolis, 79, settles into his chair in the corner of the living room at his home in Pittsburgh. With the tap of a stylus on the touchscreen of a tablet computer, he begins scrolling through a succession of digital pictures and sound recordings.

He looks at a photograph of a familiar gateway and squints. Then his face lights up as he recalls a trip to the Pittsburgh Zoo three years earlier. "Oh sure, I remember this, I really do," he tells his wife, Betty. "I remember we went with Lynn," the couple's daughter.

This isn't just any digital photo show, or your typical trip down memory lane. Robert Margolis several years ago was diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment, which can be a precursor to Alzheimer's disease, a neurological condition that snuffs out recent memories. As the condition intensifies, it eventually cuts people off from normal life and from their loved ones. A retired pharmacist, Margolis can talk lucidly about the spread of national chain drugstores. And he can provide some details about structured parts of his life like his singing group or a class he's taking on Irving Berlin. But he probably can't say what he did yesterday.

He held on to his zoo trip memories, however, with help from the high-tech memory reinforcement system — MemeXerciser — he's holding in his lap. Margolis was involved with early testing of the system currently in development at Carnegie Mellon University's Human-Computer Interaction Institute; the device is still a few years away from hitting the market.

Computerized caregivers

MemeXerciser is one example of an emerging class of intelligent devices meant to provide support for people with cognitive decline from Alzheimer's and other conditions associated with aging. Because memory loss may be the most devastating effect of such disorders, it's what most of these early intelligent assistive systems focus on. Some like MemeXerciser are all about helping preserve memory. Others provide practical, on-the-fly support in social or other situations where a little nudge from a context-aware computerized helper can smooth over momentary lapses.

These forthcoming devices aren't meant as electronic replacements for caregivers or as robotic companions. Robots for moving people with disabilities around, bathing them or providing artificial social interaction are also being studied — in certain cases even introduced — by governments of some Asian and European countries. Many mimic human or animal forms.

But MemeXerciser, says its developer, Carnegie Mellon doctoral candidate Matt Lee, is the opposite of a personified robot. It's designed to be as transparent as possible and give only the help needed. "Caregivers often give little hints, and we wanted to replicate that," he says. "People feel good when they can remember something for themselves."

Memory prompts

The system uses what he calls a "scaffolding" of assistance. While looking at zoo pictures, Margolis tries to remember details about a snack break. Unable, he taps the computer screen again, and the device plays a sound clip from that moment three years ago. Still struggling, he taps again, and his wife's recorded voice explains the situation — there was no cake left, so he settled for yogurt. "It was good though," he says agreeably.

To use the system, a person with memory loss wears a small Microsoft-built camera that automatically takes hundreds of pictures during a selected activity — a party, a wedding, a day trip. Computer intelligence comes into play during picture selection. If caregivers like Margolis' wife had to sort through hundreds of images for every event, the system wouldn't get used, Lee says. But by employing a sophisticated algorithm, MemeXerciser accurately guesses pictures likely to be important. For instance, the camera's built-in GPS sensor might indicate Margolis lingered long near the elephant enclosure. Voila, a few elephant pictures are chosen.

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