March 28, 2006

Mitigating Alzheimers Disease

Alzhiemers disease is a condition that is becoming evident in a significantly large percentage of the ageing population. It is not a new disease but one about which the medical community and the public at large are becoming increasingly aware of. The award winning movie Black, featuring Rani Mukherjee and Amitabh Bachchan - where Amitabh is shown as suffering from the disease, has brought it to the forefront of the our consciousness.

Alzheimers is a strange disease. The patient has no apparent physical disability. He is mobile, dexterous, articulate and suffers from no physical discomfort. However his mind is affected to the extent that he cannot remember even the most basic of things. For example his name, his address, profession .. progressively these fall 'off' from his mind. However from an analysis or 'processing' perspective, the mind is quite active and competent. He can jolly well brush his teeth, if he can find the toothbrush or even remembers to do so. To take an extreme case, he might even drive a car if he can remember the sequence of activities that he needs to do.

Alzhiemers is most probably a condition brought upon by genetic factors though there is still no unanimity in this regard. There is even less clarity on how this condition can be reversed. Drugs, exercises and even divine help has been sought ... with mixed results.

I am no doctor and I shall not attempt a medical cure for this unfortunate situation. Instead, let me offer a solution based on digital technology that can mitigate the suffering.

If we look at the disease carefully, we would note that the principal discomfort is in the area of remembering 'things' that are related to the circumstances at hand. Now 'remembering' things and 'recalling' them on demand is one of the things that computers - particularly databases - can do very well. Search and recall is one of the hottest technologies and the iconic status in this space is held by Google, but Yahoo and MSN are close behind.

Bringing this search into a person's life is also very easy. With GSM phones sporting Web Browsers and Blackberry like devices sprouting by the dozen ... a Google like search is now literally in the palm of your hand .. if not on your wrist.

So here is my suggestion ...

Suppose a mobile phone company ties up with a search engine and provides a service that allows an Alzheimer patient to sign up. The patient, or his guardians, will populate the data on a wide variety of personal data that the patient can call up and use whenever he feels the need to do so.

Moreover, the patient himself can add more and more data regarding his personal requirements through a small pen-based screen .. and over a period of time the service will contain very person specific information.

What we need is a very intuitive interface that will allow him to navigate through this information. We can begin with standard menu-based navigation but it is not too difficult to come up with an associative algorithm that will automatically bring to the front, facts and figures that are relevent to the situation at hand. Artificial intelligence based algorithms can be developed to fine tune the search.

For example, visual and aural cues from the immediate environment can be used by the patient (remember .. he is not incapacitated from thinking ) to guide him towards things that he could need. For example, if he is in the bathroom .. words like brush-teeth, take-bath can float up .. and once these are clicked .. can lead to words like tooth-brush or soap or towel.

Similarly if he is on the road, words like market and home can be pulled up and based on the which one he chooses, he can be led through a subsequent set of words, phrases and ideas.

Technologically this is peanuts. A mobile phone connected to a search engine is all that is required. To make things easier, I would suggest a blue-tooth enabled screen that can attached to the wrist with a stylus-like input and an emergency call button.

Should everything fail, the person can press the button and a call centre operator can reach him on the phone and after looking through this recent search patterns and talking to him can guide him to whatever he was trying to do.

Having such a service would be invaluable in helping patients suffering from Alzheimers disease lead a normal life


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