August 1, 2008

NASA Technology Helps Prevent Falls

A technology savvy insole could help the elderly avoid catastrophic falls thanks to help from NASA.

Scientists, who worked to help astronauts regain balance after extended flights in zero gravity, say they can now help those prone to falls with an "iShoe" insole.

Erez Lieberman, a graduate student who developed the technology while working as an intern at NASA, says a major fall is preceded by numerous warnings.

The insole contains sensors that read how well a person is balancing. They gather information for doctors, who can use the data to get people to a specialist.

The signs of a fall are similar to how high cholesterol and elevated blood pressure point to a coming heart attack, said Lieberman, who studies in a joint Harvard-Massachusetts Institute of Technology health science and technology program.

"You gradually get worse and worse at balancing," he said. "If you know the problem is there, you can start addressing the problem."

The National Osteoporosis Foundation estimates 300,000 people annually suffer hip fractures, which are often caused by falls. Nearly a quarter of hip fracture patients age 50 and over die within a year of the fracture. Those who don't initially die, end up being disabled the rest of their lives.

"It's a huge issue," said Elinor Ginzler of the AARP. "It significantly impairs your ability to stay independent, which is what people want."

Lieberman came up with the idea for the iShoe when he was working at NASA last summer on a project to help astronauts regain balance after months in zero gravity. He said the balance research seemed to have obvious earthly applications for the elderly.

Lieberman, with visiting NASA scientist Katharine Forth, had each been touched personally by the issue of elderly falls. They both experienced a grandmother's health rapidly deteriorate after such an accident.

"It was something that has kind of been on my mind in general, and once I started looking at balance it became very clear it would have applications in that direction," Lieberman said.

Researchers say when the iShoe insole is slipped inside any shoe it solves the problem of portability and affordability. The device would cost about $100.

The iShoe researchers studied how pressure is distributed on the foot by people with balance problems, compared to those with good balance. They then were able to determine certain pressure patterns that show up when people are struggling with balance.

Balance problems are caused by deteriorating muscle tone, bad vision and inner ear problems.

"Poor balance isn't something you have to accept. ... You can help yourself, you can improve balance," Forth said.

Possible solutions can be as simple as a tai chi exercise to build strength.

Dr. Robert Lindsay, a professor of medicine at Columbia University and a trustee at the osteoporosis foundation, said to be of any use the iShoe would have to be affordable, durable, and collect data that's easy for physicians to read.

"If they have a sensor that can detect differences in balance, it is fairly easy to train the elderly, using physical therapy, to improve their balance," Lindsay said. "It would be a good tool."

The iShoe will send out data if someone actually falls using half dozen sensors. However, the insole is not an instant alarm. It's more like a data recorder that the user can bring to a doctor or balance specialist for help if the dangerous pressure patterns are noticed.

Currently, the iShoe is still being tested to ensure it can hold up under constant foot pounding. Meanwhile, Lieberman and Forth are still perfecting the software that identifies the faulty pressure patterns.

To eventually sell the iShoe, Lieberman estimates $1 million is needed for a broad clinical trial. He estimates another $3 million to $4 million is needed to bring the insole to market.

The company has applied for a patent and as well as federal funding. Once funding is obtained, the iShoe could be available in 18 months, Lieberman said.


Image 1: Graduate student Erez Lieberman is working on an "iShoe" which uses technology developed by NASA to create an insole that could help elderly people keep their balance and prevent falls. Photo / Donna Coveney

Image 2: The iShoe insole would measure and analyze the pressure distribution of the patient's foot and report back to their doctor. Photo / Donna Coveney