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Beyond smart phones: Applying sensors and devices for healthier aging

Yuan Luo
Yuan LUO,
Program Director,
Division of Neuroscience (DN)
Erika Tarver
Erika Tarver,
Lead Social Science Analyst,
Division of Neuroscience (DN)

Older Americans are becoming increasingly tech-savvy, with more than 75 percent using smart phones. As older adults become more comfortable with these and other “smart” tech items like watches and fitness trackers, NIA-supported researchers are working to find innovative ways these devices can monitor and improve physical and cognitive health.

The vast array of available devices and sensors provides an unprecedented opportunity for continuous, objective, and unobtrusive data collection in homes or clinics. NIA aims to find new ways to use existing technology for early detection or monitoring of chronic health problems and as part of clinical trials. We especially hope to aid earlier detection of cognitive change and to improve diagnosis and monitoring of Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias (AD/ADRD) — a major goal of the National Plan to Address Alzheimer’s Disease.

Virtual workshop, viable strategies

On April 27, NIA hosted a virtual workshop on the use of neurotechnology in normal brain aging and AD/ADRD (PDF, 589K). The workshop featured a multitude of applications — many in various stages of commercialization — presented by researchers from across the country. The forward-looking innovations were grouped across three main themes: predicting cognitive decline, altering neural activity, and collecting high-quality bioinformatic data. The discussions included:

  • Using stimulation and testing of the sense of smell — problems can be early signs of AD pathology — to select individuals with increased risk for cognitive decline for clinical studies.
  • Tracking subtle changes in eye movement and related brain vascular patterns when viewing images as predictors of future cognitive decline.
  • Targeting light and sound stimulation — known as neurofeedback — to help synchronize neurons with each other to boost cognition.
  • Direct stimulation through the scalp using mild levels of electricity and focused ultrasound to better enable drugs to permeate the blood-brain barrier. Light therapy and electrical stimulation have also been shown to improve sleep quality. NIA-supported research has shown a connection between poor sleep quality in middle age and Alzheimer’s-related brain changes later in life.
  • A mattress pad that uses 32 pressure sensors to track participants’ respiration and movement during sleep. It helps identify poor sleep quality, which has been associated with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) and other neurocognitive deficits. Data from the smart mattress pad informed the design of an algorithm that accurately identified individuals with MCI.
  • Comfortable, durable, and flexible band-aid-like devices that can be worn to record high-quality biometric data relevant to aging and AD/ADRD, such as respiration, heart rate, body position, and movement. Similar next-generation sensors could better track high blood pressure, which has been associated with cognitive decline, and monitor difficulties with swallowing and sleep.

These tiny, ubiquitous sensors and devices we take for granted offer a wealth of potential to improve aging research and precision medicine. Future NIA goals include identifying and addressing gaps and barriers in development and use of these devices, enhancing collaboration with caregivers and data scientists, diversifying the neuro-engineering workforce, and increasing interdisciplinary partnerships.

Funding available — let’s hear your ideas!

If you are interested in health innovations using smart sensors and related technology, we encourage you to apply for funding support from NIA. A Notice of Special Interest: Digital Technology for Early Detection of Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Dementias was released earlier this year, and the first application due date is July 9, 2020. We’d love to hear your questions or comments about this exciting field below!


Submitted by Judy Spiegel on June 24, 2020

I’d be interested in finding out whether our software could be a possible candidate for funding.

Researchers interested in discussing their proposed research and possible funding support can review a list of funding opportunity announcements. You may also want to look at NIA SBIR/STTR FOAs as a potential better fit (PAS-19-317, PAS-19-316), and then schedule a time to speak with a Division Program Officer or member of the NIA Small Business Office. For software covered under topics listed in NOT-AG-20-017, please contact the Scientific/Research contact(s) at the end of the page under “Inquiries.”

Submitted by William Collin… on June 24, 2020

In this initiative it would be wise if you address the matter of potential adverse health effects of chronic exposure to the wireless radiation emitted by some sensors and wireless devices. The research indicates impacts on neurological functioning as well as DNA damage with chronic exposure, both of which could be predicted to exacerbate the conditions being monitored. If you are not already familiar with the research on this, I would recommend reviewing the independent, non-industry-funded research on this at the website on it by UC Berkeley School of Public Health's Joel Moskowitz, at

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