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Study Finds Wearable Sensors Can Tell When You’re Getting Sick

Abnormal readings for an individual could suggest possible illness

Wearable sensors that monitor heart rate, activity, skin temperature, and other variables can reveal a lot about what is going on inside a person––including the onset of infection, inflammation, and even insulin resistance, according to a study by researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine.

An important component of the ongoing study is to establish a range of normal, or baseline, values for each person in the study and when they are ill. “We want to study people at an individual level,” said Michael Snyder, PhD, Professor and Chair of Genetics at Stanford.

Snyder is the senior author of the study, which was published online January 12 in PLOS Biology. Postdoctoral scholars Xiao Li, PhD, and Jessilyn Dunn, PhD, and software engineer Denis Salins share lead authorship.

Altogether, the team collected nearly two billion measurements from 60 people, including continuous data from each participant’s wearable biosensor devices and periodic data from laboratory tests of their blood chemistry, gene expression, and other measures. Participants wore between one and seven commercially available activity monitors and other monitors that collected more than 250,000 measurements a day. The team collected data on weight; heart rate; oxygen in the blood; skin temperature; activity, including sleep, steps, walking, biking, and running; calories expended; acceleration; and even exposure to gamma rays and x-rays.

The study demonstrated that, given a baseline range of values for each person, it is possible to monitor deviations from normal and associate those deviations with environmental conditions, illness, or other factors that affect health. Distinctive patterns of deviation from normal seem to correlate with particular health problems. Algorithms designed to pick up on these patterns of change could potentially contribute to clinical diagnostics and research.

The results of the study raise the possibility of identifying inflammatory disease in individuals who may not even know they are getting sick. For example, in several participants, higher-than-normal readings for heart rate and skin temperature correlated with increased levels of C reactive protein in blood tests. C reactive protein is an immune system marker for inflammation and often indicative of infection, autoimmune diseases, developing cardiovascular disease, or even cancer.

The wearable devices could also help distinguish participants with insulin resistance, a precursor for type-2 diabetes. Of 20 participants who received glucose tests, 12 were insulin-resistant. The team designed and tested an algorithm combining participants’ daily steps, daytime heart rate, and the difference between daytime and nighttime heart rate. The algorithm was able to process the data from just these few simple measures to predict which individuals in the study were likely to be insulin-resistant.

During a visit to the doctor, patients normally have their blood pressure and body temperature measured, but such data is typically collected only every year or two and often ignored unless the results are outside of normal range for entire populations. But biomedical researchers envisage a future in which human health is monitored continuously.

“We have more sensors on our cars than we have on human beings,” said Snyder. In the future, he said, he expects the situation will be reversed and people will have more sensors than cars do. Already, consumers have purchased millions of wearable devices, including more than 50 million smart watches and 20 million other fitness monitors. Most monitors are used to track activity, but they could easily be adjusted to more directly track health measures, Snyder said.

With a precision health approach, every person could know his or her normal baseline for dozens of measures. Automatic data analysis could spot patterns of outlier data points and flag the onset of ill health, providing an opportunity for intervention, prevention, or cure.

Source: Stanford Medicine; January 12, 2017.

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