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UVA Uses Smart Phones and Watches to Search for Early Signs of Sickness and Brain Injury


In the last 20 years Americans have learned just how dangerous concussions can be, and we know early treatment is key to a full recovery.  Now, the University of Virginia is working on a way to diagnose brain injuries sooner and to monitor patients’ recovery.

Head injuries are commonly associated with football and other sports, but a bruise to the brain can happen in less dramatic ways, and 80% go undiagnosed.

Now, a team of scientists at the University of Virginia is working on ways to identify subtle changes in the way we move and behave – possible warning signs of traumatic brain injury and evidence of recovery in patients.

“Really what we want to know is when do they return to normal, because right now there’s no objective data about that,” says Engineering Professor Laura Barnes. She and her colleagues are using a smart phone app called Sensus to track sleep, movement and other behaviors in students, many of them athletes. 

Credit UVA
Using computers and artificial intelligence, this team of researchers at UVA hope to find patterns in data from smart phones, watches and wings -- patterns that foretell changes in our health.

“Sensus will collect a host of sensor data from the smart phone.  We have GPS which can tell us where people go, how often they leave their house," she explains. "We have other sensors like accelerometers, which tell us how much people are moving, how physically active they are.”

Should any study subjects suffer concussions, her team can compare data from before and after, and using wearable devices such as smart watches and rings – they can also monitor heart rate, body temperature and other biomarkers, then use computers to look for patterns that could signal the early stages of sickness.

“Ideally we want to be able to detect symptoms of flu, COVID, to get interventions earlier," Barnes says.  "The latest Apple Watch will get our blood Oxygen level, which is a game changer for things like COVID.”

The UVA researchers also send periodic surveys to study subjects on their smart phones or watches to see how they’re feeling and what they’re doing.  She says this research could prove especially valuable in treating social anxiety and other chronic conditions.  

Sandy Hausman joined our news team in 2008 after honing her radio skills in Chicago. Since then, she's won several national awards for her reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists, the Society of Environmental Journalists, the Radio, Television and Digital News Association and the Public Radio News Directors' Association.