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

An illustration to represent dementia.

Being lazy certainly has it’s moments, though more often than not it’s a bit of a hindrance in life. 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, though I suppose at least the cardiovascular system has something to be thankful for.

That was my attempt at setting the scene for when I stumbled into the university cafeteria with sweat pouring down my face as I was due to meet up 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, discussing a mix of photography, computer science and Alzheimer’s; or wait, was it Aspergers?

Lifelogging

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.

The Narrative Clip

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, and said that this is something she might want to work on in the future. By analysing the pictures using cutting edge algorithms, data can 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. It turns out that lifelogging could be used in this way in the near future, though it currently only has medical relevance, such as in the example I gave above.  

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

Big brother

While this does all sound quite exciting, it does raise some ethical questions, particularly from someone who has his concerns about mass surveillance. She assured me that the user is the person who would own the data and a confidentiality contract would always be signed by someone looking to use the data i.e a medical professional. 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. 

The motivation

As a topic, it’s certainly quite out there: you don’t often meet a computer scientist whose calling seems to be improving the quality of life of Alzheimer’s patients. Starting as an electrical engineer, Estefania made the transition into biomedical engineering in the hopes of finding a way to contribute to society. Through her master’s, the topic of image analysis was offered to her. It was here where she realised that her calling in life was lifelogging, and with the offer of funding in Groningen, how could she refuse the chance to live in such a wonderful city?

An algorithm for disaster

It was a very interesting conversation for me, especially as I don’t actually know any computer science students. I was always a little curious as to what they get up to in their faculty. While I was there, I was also confronted with my own prejudices. I believed that all the computer science students would be stereotypical gamers, when Estefania couldn’t have been further from it.

All in all, I think it will be interesting to see how this kind of technology develops, especially if it can find a way to soothe the pain experienced by many families as a result of degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s. 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.