Innovative camera could help Alzheimer's patients

April 13, 2010 7:03:54 PM PDT
Researchers have long been searching for a drug that will help Alzheimer's patient's improve their memories. But, what if a device could do part of the remembering for them?

If inventor Gordon Bell views the world a bit differently, it might be because he has two sets of eyes. He wears the second set around his neck.

"So, we were the first to kind of use it, and people became fascinated with it," he says.

The device, called the Sense-Cam, snaps photographs in a constant stream, about one every 30 seconds. For much of the last decade, Bell, a senior engineer with Microsoft, has worn it almost constantly, capturing the moments and movements of his life in San Francisco.

The result is a kind of digital stream of consciousness, a vast reservoir of virtual memories that he can call up at a moment's notice with specialized software. He has even documented the evolution of virtual memory in a new book called "Total Recall," envisioning a world where people have two "selves," real and digital, with millions of stored memories.

"I now believe that that's doable," he says.

But within few years in, the project also took a very practical turn when engineers asked, "Is there really an everyday use for virtual memory?"

It turned out the answer was yes, especially if someone's memory is failing.

"This is such an important tool to help patients with memory," says Kate Possin a therapist with UCFS's Memory Clinic.

Possin already uses computer software to help Alzheimer's patients do things like memorize a route through a neighborhood.

"And after awhile it's kind of like motor memory in a way, learning routine of going through an environment," she says.

They also have patients write in journals to log their memories on paper. But, what if recalling a memory was as simple as rewinding your day.

"Where did we go last night for diner? Who was at the party? Rather, patients can consult technology so memories will be stronger," Possin says.

In ongoing trials begun by Microsoft in Cambridge, England, patients with significant dementia were able to retain memories by repeatedly reviewing images of them.

"What you do it anytime you want to and go back," Bell says.

Bell believes a version of the device for Alzheimer's patients could be available in the next few years. In the meantime, Bell continues his research making memories moment by moment.

The first data from those clinical trials in England is expected later this year. It's not yet being tested in the U.S.


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