NIH spends $10.8 million to turn activity trackers into medical alarms


The National Institutes of Health is spending big bucks on research that will make sense of the torrent of data from wearables like the Fitbit and the Apple Watch and use those insights to predict when the body is about to fail.

The Center of Excellence for Mobile Sensor Data-to-Knowledge, or MD2K, was announced Thursday, and brings together 22 researchers from 11 universities, including two researchers from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. MD2K opens with $10.8 million in funding from the NIH.

“Fitbit-like devices — with the same form factor — can be used for many things other than fitness tracking,” Deepak Ganesan, associate professor at UMass and a member of the MD2K, said.

MD2K already has two health concerns in its sights already: Smoking and heart failure.

A huge percent of people affected by heart failure — about 50 percent of 1 million Americans over 65 each year — find their way back to the hospital within six months. At MD2K, researchers hope to use data gathered from non-intrusive trackers to see a relapse coming, and take steps to prevent it.

“The idea is, ahead of time you can sense all this information using mobile devices, you can anticipate it, predict and have predictive care,” Ganesan said. For example, it is already possible to be alerted to lung fluid collection — one sign of an impending relapse — using a chest band worn under your clothing. The group is prepared for the rapid pace at which wearable electronics are integrating with the body: “Today it’s a chest band, maybe tomorrow it’s a shirt that has sensors,” Ganesan said.

In previous work, Ganesan and colleagues have demonstrated that they can tell when a person is smoking by translating gesture cues from a FitBit-like device worn on the wrist. The challenge they’ve been able to overcome is being able to tell a when a person is raising a cigarette to his or her lips and not eating a french fry, say, or applying lipstick.

Stress is another measurement that can be made from the data existing trackers currently collect. “It is a huge indicator and a gateway to a lot of health problems,” Ganesan said. Recently, a group at the MIT Media Lab has demonstrated that they can measure a person’s stress levels when they are wearing Google Glass by measuring their breathing and heart rate.

MD2K is one branch of a larger NIH initiative called Big Data to Knowledge, or BD2K. The institute announced a total of $32 million in funding distributed country-wide to groups studying data from all sources: Genetics research, mobile devices, social media, and more.

“Data creation in today’s research is exponentially more rapid than anything we anticipated even a decade ago,” Francis Collins, director of the NIH, said in a release. “The potential of these data, when used effectively, is quite astounding.”

By 2020, the NIH expects to spend up to $625 million in this space.

Image via Flickr user Nicola

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about science and research. Email her at
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