Rice Students Have Help for People with Epilepsy

May 16, 2013. Rice University students have created a belt that monitors signs of epileptic seizures and sends information to the caregiver’s bedside. The belt detects increased electrical conductance in the skin and changes in respiration rate, both signs that a seizure is underway. Though children or adults can wear the belt, the students designed it with kids in mind. They want parents to be aware of when a child is having a seizure, especially during the night.

The members of Team Seize and Assist—Ethan Leng, Mihir Mongia, Charles Park, Tiffany Varughese, and Andrew Wu—built the belt as their senior capstone design project, required of most Rice engineering students. Cyberonics Inc., a Houston-based medical device company, sponsored the project; Gary Woods, a Rice professor in the practice of computer technology and electrical and computer engineering, advised the team.

The SMART (Seizure Monitoring and Response Transducer) belt has two silver/silver-chloride electrodes, like those used in lie detectors, positioned on the torso. They sense electrical conductivity. The belt has another sensor that monitors breathing. The sensors are attached to a removable electronic module that acquires and transmits the signals. When the sensors show signs of a seizure, the transmitter sends data via Bluetooth to either a computer or smartphone.

“Our belt is targeted for ages six years and up,” Varughese said. “It works best during the nighttime because there’s not a lot of other stimuli, and we can definitely detect changes in the two signs.”

While an electroencephalograph (EEG) is the standard of care for seizure detection, it is expensive and can’t be used 24/7, Varughese said. The students aimed for an inexpensive, comfortable device that could be worn around the clock under a patient’s clothes and not only monitor for seizures but also compile a record of seizure occurrences that would be of value to their doctors, she said.

The students said testing has not been performed on people with epilepsy, but their own tests on healthy volunteers, as approved by Rice’s Institutional Review Board (IRB), were promising.

“We’ve had Andrew wear it overnight and had multiple IRB volunteers wear it for 20 to 30 minutes to get data,” Varughese said. “They rate this device highly in terms of comfort.”

To gather data, volunteers were asked to hyperventilate, or they were startled by a loud noise, both of which prompt a fight-or-flight response similar to what a person with epilepsy experiences during a seizure.

The students said bed-vibration sensors are often used to detect convulsions that occur in 20% of epileptic seizures, but they are prone to false positives. “You don’t want parents waking up too frequently, or they won’t use the device,” Varughese said.

The students see their device as a way to help many of the 2.3 million people with epilepsy in the United States. “The main goal of our project was to build the sensors and demonstrate that they work, and show they have the potential to detect seizures,” Park said.

While it does not stop a seizure in progress, such an early warning device will help parents keep their children safe, Varughese added. “Having someone there to make sure the person is stable is the most important thing,” she said.

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