A psychologist and an engineer at Washington State University have teamed up to find a way to keep a rapidly aging U.S. population out of nursing homes a while longer.
The two scientists hope to find a better way to identify and measure the problems people with memory loss confront each day in their own homes.
Maureen Schmitter-Edgecombe, a professor of clinical neuropsychology, has done extensive memory-intervention research, particularly involving people with early-stage dementia. Diane Cook is a professor of electrical engineering and computer science with a background in artificial intelligence and “smart” environments, which are able to acquire and apply knowledge about individual residents and their physical surroundings.
Together, they conceived a project that may one day enhance the quality of life for older people with cognitive or physical limitations, supported by an $800,000 grant from the state’s Life Sciences Discovery Fund.
In earlier research, Schmitter-Edgecombe sought to better understand the relationship between memory deficit and the ability to perform daily activities.
“I believe there are multiple reasons,” she said. “There is evidence to suggest that information is stored in different areas of the brain.”
When grandpa fails to deposit a check in the bank, it could be content memory deficit – he forgot about the check and his need to deposit it, Schmitter-Edgecombe explained.
But it could also be that he drove by the bank intending to deposit the check and forgot to stop. This would indicate a problem with perspective memory – the ability to remember to do something in the future.
Or it could be that something is wrong with grandpa’s source memory – how the memory was formed – and he believed he had already deposited the check.
“In order to find the best way to intervene,” Schmitter-Edgecombe said, “we have to understand the underlying problem.”
The case of someone not remembering what activities to perform may be different than someone who forgets when to do it, and the cues used to prompt them to remember may be very different, she said.
If you can monitor a person’s daily activities, you can prompt the person to remember to perform those activities.
That’s where Cook comes in.
The “smart home” she developed with students in her WSU laboratory two years ago is loaded with sensors that recognize frequent patterns in the everyday activities of people living in the home.
“There were certain activities that occurred regularly enough to automate them,” Cook said.
Software can be written to perform some daily activities, such as turning on the lights, or to prompt the resident to perform them, such as taking medicine. “The end goal,” Schmitter-Edgecombe said, “is to get to the point where (smart home technology) is providing assistance and not just monitoring.”
If such technology enables people with early-stage dementia or traumatic brain injury to maintain their independence, the researchers said, it will greatly improve their quality of life.