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A Better World Through Technology

Spring 2013

Ryan Savage ‘10 (seated) and Patrick Wagner ‘10, both electrical engineering graduates at Scranton, test the controller.

As a biomedical engineer, Christine Zakzewski, Ph.D., seeks to develop innovative technologies to improve health care. She is currently engaged in the multidisciplinary collaborative “Elder Care” research program that brings together experts from behavioral psychology, nursing, engineering, biophysics, computer science and clinical medicine to create a smart home-based system capable of detecting early behavioral pattern changes. The system aims to take unobtrusive measurements of an individual’s routine daily activities, and alert caregivers when an unexpected change in behavior is detected that may be indicative of future adverse medical consequences. The system will promote healthy independent living by providing alerts to recommend early intervention and reduce the likelihood of catastrophic medical emergencies. The Elder Care research program is led by faculty from The University of Scranton, including Dr. Zakzewski, Margarete Zalon, Ph.D., Herb Hauser, Ph.D., Robert Spalletta, Ph.D., and Ayad Haboubi, Ph.D., and involves undergraduate students from various degree programs. Pilot studies have been funded by University of Scranton Internal Faculty Research Grants, and have led to student presentations at the IEEE Region 2 Student Activities Conference (2011) and at the University’s Annual Celebration of Student Scholars (2012).

One specific application of the Elder Care system includes the early detection of delirium within the home. Delirium is a sudden, severe confusion that may fluctuate in intensity. As one of the most complex and serious problems faced by elders, delirium results in hospitalization and adverse consequences, including functional decline, falls, nursing home placement, and loss of ability to interact. Symptoms of this condition include changes in locomotion and sleep patterns, disorientation and disorganized thinking. These symptoms may lead the individual to have difficultly completing simple daily tasks. Detected early and treated promptly, delirium is often temporary and reversible. However, because the symptoms and severity of delirium often fluctuate over the course of a day, the disease may go undetected by family members and clinicians.

The Elder Care group has been working to develop a system to monitor subtle behavioral changes during daily pill-taking routines to facilitate early detection of delirium in the home. Taking medication involves complex management, problem solving and executive function. To monitor for delirium, the system will rely on the rich data available during the pill-taking regimen. The technology-enhanced pill console uses eye tracking to detect variations in attention and cognitive load, touch sensors to detect changes in visuospatial and cognitive abilities, and motion analysis to detect changes in locomotion patterns. Fluctuations in attention, comprehension and motor performance could be considered a diagnostic sign of delirium, and will initiate an alert to caregivers that such changes have been observed that warrant further clinical assessment. This work has been submitted for additional funding with the National Institutes of Health and the National Institute on Aging.

Using Game Technology to Help with Rehabilitation
Dr. Zakzewski has worked with Dr. Haboubi and Dr. Spalletta on projects with undergraduate engineering students to develop an Xbox controller that could be used by individuals with motion impairment. This work was funded by a Pennsylvania Assistive Technology Commercialization Initiative (PATCI) grant from the Northeastern Pennsylvania Technology Institute, as well as a Keystone Innovation Zone Grant. This system, pictured below, was initially custom designed for a teenager who had been paralyzed with a C-4 spinal cord injury. Individuals who have this type of injury typically have full head and neck movement, limited shoulder, wrist and elbow movements, limited finger movement, and complete paralysis of body and legs.

The controller uses signals from the individual’s head, shoulder, wrist and elbow movements to control gameplay. The reconfigured Xbox controller could be used to extend the strength and range of motion of the individual; movements that control each button and joystick could be tailored to meet the individual’s physical therapy plan of care and goals. For example, one person may have a goal of an increased range of shoulder movement. To encourage use of the shoulders, shoulder movements would be used to control the Xbox analog joystick inputs. The degree to which the shoulder can be safely exercised could be included in the design so that repeated use of this motion serves to strengthen the shoulder. The other button controls would be configured to meet the individual’s needs and abilities. Future iterations of this device may use the Kinect system to monitor and assess movement during gameplay, or use haptic technology to control force-exerting motors within the joystick to demand increased user effort and exercise muscles during gameplay to improve the person’s mobility and strength.

Research is an important part of teaching and learning at The University of Scranton. The institution supports faculty research through release time, travel funding and internal research grants. New facilities within the Loyola Science Center promote interdisciplinary research and encourage faculty/student collaboration to allow scholars from varied backgrounds to work together to improve the quality of health care.


Christine Zakzewski, Ph.D.
Physics/Electrical Engineering