Computer Science as a Tool to Alleviate Symptoms Associated with Alzheimer’s

An illustration to represent dementia.

Far too often, I find myself slamming on the snooze button in an attempt to postpone the inevitable start to the day. “Five more minutes” I say to myself, remembering a simpler time when uttering that sentence meant I just wanted to play on my Playstation a little while longer. Those extra minutes often come at a cost: by cycling faster than usual, things don’t end up looking so good for the proverbial cover of the book.

That was my attempt at setting the scene for when I stumbled into the university cafeteria with sweat pouring down my face for my latest interview with Estefania Talavera, a Spanish computer science PhD student at both the University of Groningen and the University of Barcelona. After getting over the initial culture shock of the fact that she arrived before me despite her Spanish roots, we sat down to have a talk about her work.  As an academic in the field of computer science, she combines this with photography and Alzheimer’s to give an interesting result.

A visual aid for sufferers of Alzheimer’s

The topic which Estefania focuses on is called lifelogging. How it works is that a person wears a camera which takes pictures throughout the day around every 20 seconds, giving a first person perspective of the life of the user. Typically, the camera would be worn as a necklace or something similar. One particular area she highlighted where this could be useful, is in treating people with Alzheimer’s. By providing access to these pictures, the person in question could reduce some of the confusion and frustration that comes with the early stages of the disease, by having a clear visual aid of their day to assist in remembering things.  

The camera could be worn as a necklace.

Applications of lifelogging beyond medicine

Of course, there are other ways the technology could be used. Estefania even suggested that it could be used in a similar way to a go-pro, but with pictures instead of videos, “However, this sort of application would be something for the future. Right now, there is only really a medical application,” she explains. By analysing the pictures using cutting edge algorithms, data could be collected about the person and their habits. This could lead to a system which gives advice such as ‘do more exercise’, ‘eat more sporadically’ or ‘stop spending so much time looking at pictures of cats on the internet’.

She also highlighted an interesting dynamic related to this: by using such a system, we would confront our own ideas of ourselves, as the image we have is likely to be false due to our own emotions and feelings.

A picture every 20 seconds means 4320 pictures every 24 hours.

Concerns regarding mass surveillance

While this does all sound quite exciting, it does raise some ethical questions, particularly from someone who has his concerns about mass surveillance. “The camera user would be the owner of the data,” she reasured me, “Any researcher or medical professional looking to use the data would have to sign a confidentiality contract”. The user would also have complete control over which photos they wanted to keep, and which they didn’t. For example, they might want to remove pictures of going to the toilet, or embarrassing moments. The user would also be aware that they were wearing the camera and so they could take it off at any time. 

An algorithm for disaster

“As a computer scientist, I can’t solve or cure the illness, but I can find a way to make their lives easier” she informed me as we discussed the motivations behind her work. Perhaps somehwhat blurred by my own biases, I had never imagined a computer scientist would find their calling in caring for older people with degenerative diseases, so I find her story incredibly fascinating.

As the 6th leading cause of death in America alone – infecting one in ten people over the age of 65 – Alzeheimer’s is a disease which has a lasting impact on families across the globe. Like Estefania said, even though her work couldn’t solve the illness, technological developments such as lifelogging could be an ointment to sooth the pain experienced as a result of degenerative diseases. On the other hand, having the idea I’ve built up of myself shattered by a computer algorithm may be a recipe for disaster. After all, isn’t ignorance bliss?

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Jack McGovan is a recent graduate in chemistry with a specialisation in ‘Energy and Sustainable Chemistry’ from the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. Following a job as a student journalist covering the energy transition, he has moved to Berlin where he is following his passion for working towards creating a fairer and more sustainable world. Seeing a gap in the way in which the world of science was communicated, he founded Delta-S. By writing source based content, he hopes to communicate his findings to a wider audience.