September 25, 2018

WPI granted $3M to develop soldier brain injury smartphone app

Photo/Grant Welker
Worcester Polytechnic Institute was 59th among national universities, the highest among Central Massachusetts colleges, in the new U.S. News & World Report rankings.

Researchers at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, armed with a $2.8-million grant, are developing a smartphone app to detect medical conditions impacting a soldier's readiness.

Computser science professors Emmanuel Agu, faculty director for WPI's Healthcare Delivery Institute, and Elke Rundensteiner, director of WPI's Data Science Program, are developing the technology with the funds from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

The goal of the DARPA program Warfighter Analytics using Smartphones for Health (WASH) is to create an app passively assessing a soldier's health to detect potentially severe illnesses at early stages.

The system is meant to supplement typical medical assessments by detecting problems outside of scheduled clinical appointments. The system could help flag small problems before they impair a soldier's readiness or lead to a widespread outbreak like the flu, tuberculosis or other diseases.

According to Agu, signs of brain injury or other illnesses in soldiers may be sensed well before full-blown symptoms impair their ability to function in a combat setting.

The team aims to develop machine-learning algorithms to tap into smartphone sensors to collect data about behaviors linked to specific health issues.

According to the U.S. Department of Defense, about 22 percent of all combat casualties from Iraq and Afghanistan suffer brain juries. However, brain injuries can only be diagnosed and monitored in a medical setting via CT scans and other tests.

Smartphones -- equipped with an array of sensors, processing technology, cameras, microphones, accelerometers, facial recognition, fingerprint detection and GPS -- have the ability to continually capture what Agu calls smartphone biomarkers.

The WPI team plans to test the technology in a study of 100 volunteers and eventually a larger-scale study involving up to 100,000, including some with traumatic brain injury or infections diseases.

Data from those studies will be used to develop the technology to compare biomarkers to those associated with specific medical conditions.

"This will enable continuous, real-time assessment of TBI and infectious diseases afflicting soldiers, who can then be contacted by a clinician to confirm their status," Agu said in a press release.

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