Helping those with dementia live independently for longer

A ‘ground-breaking’ £20 m new centre will develop technologies to create dementia-friendly ‘Healthy Homes’, and provide insights into how dementia develops. The new Care Research & Technology Centre at Imperial College London joins six national discovery science centres that collectively make up the UK Dementia Research Institute (UK DRI). The ‘vision’ for the new facility is to use patient-centred technology to help people affected by dementia live better and for longer in their own homes. The centre will use a range of approaches – from artificial intelligence and robotics, to sleep monitoring – to enable people with dementia to live safely and independently in their own homes.

Based at Imperial College London’s Sir Michael Uren Biomedical Engineering Research Hub, part of the educational establishment’s White City Campus, in collaboration with the University of Surrey, the centre will be funded by the UK DRI’s three founding partners – the Medical Research Council, Alzheimer’s Society, and Alzheimer’s Research UK.

It will bring together scientists, engineers, and doctors, to build on existing, early-stage technologies that can be integrated into a person’s home – the aim being that the technology should continuously assess physical and mental wellbeing, alerting a person’s medical team of any potential problems at an early stage. Around 850,000 people in the UK have dementia, of which over 60 per cent are living in the community. 

Professor David Sharp, neurologist at Imperial College London, and head of the centre, said: “The latest figures suggest that one in four hospital beds are occupied by people with dementia – and 20 per cent of these admissions are due to preventable causes, such as falls, dehydration, and infections. The new technologies we develop will improve our ability to support people in their homes. They will allow us to intervene at an early stage, to prevent the crises that so often lead to hospital stays, or a move to a care home. What’s more, we’ll be able to improve our understanding of dementia onset and progression.”

Technology developed for the centre will include:

  • Sensors placed around the house or on a patient’s body to track vital signs such as heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature. Imperial College says the hope is that the sensors – some small enough to be worn as a small earpiece – will also provide key information on aspects such as gait, brain activity, and sleep, previously hard to measure in the home.

  • Artificial intelligence that will automatically integrate all this patient information and ‘flag’ any changes – for instance highlighting a change in walking pattern that might suggest a patient is at risk of a fall, or an elevated temperature that could suggest an infection.

  • Technology that allows researchers and medical teams to that tracks a patient’s memory and cognitive function. The centre’s goal is to be able to monitor behaviour in the home with technology that doesn’t interfere with their everyday life –

    and then use the resulting data to predict when patients might run into problems, such as if they begin to become agitated or distressed, and intervene early to assist them.

  • Methods of tracking sleep quality. Sleep disturbance is a significant problem in dementia, but is hard to monitor at home. The centre will develop new ways to track sleep via motion sensors in the beds and bed sheets, and use this information to potentially improve sleep quality.

  • ‘Quick, simple at-home tests for common infections’. Infections are as significant issue for people with dementia, and often lead to hospital stays. The centre will develop rapid tests that a carer can use, which send immediate results to their GP.

  • Robotic devices that interact with patients living with dementia. These ill assist by alerting patients to safety risks – such as spilt liquid on the floor, or a cooker left on, as well as monitoring if a patient seems agitated or distressed, and notifying the patient’s healthcare team.

All the technology will be assessed and evaluated by people living with dementia and their carers, to ensure it is both practical and needed. Science Minister, Chris Skidmore, said: “Advanced technologies such as robotics and Artificial Intelligence have great potential to support us in illness or old age. This project will help those living with dementia stay in their own homes for longer, with the dignity and independence we all deserve. One of our modern Industrial Strategy’s Grand Challenges is Ageing Society, and that is why we are backing new research like this to help us all adapt to our society where people come first.”