August 1, 2008

Goal of ‘iShoe': New Balance — Insole Collects Data to Head Off Slips, Falls

By Jay Lindsay

BOSTON - Scientists working to help astronauts regain balance after extended flights in zero gravity say they've found a way to use the research to help elderly people avoid catastrophic falls.

An "iShoe" insole contains sensors that read how well a person is balancing. The point is to gather information for doctors and to get people to a specialist for physical therapy - before they fall.

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

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

The idea for the iShoe came to Lieberman while he was working at NASA last summer on a project to help astronauts regain balance after months in zero gravity. The work is part of preparations for long space missions, such as trips to Mars, that require astronauts to perform complicated tasks on the terrain soon after landing.

The balance research seemed to Lieberman to have obvious earthly applications for the elderly.

He and Katharine Forth, a visiting scientist at NASA who also works on the iShoe, had been touched personally by the issue of elderly falls, with each seeing a grandmother's health deteriorate after such an accident.

NASA tests balance with an expensive device about the size of a phone booth. Lieberman and Forth say the iShoe insole, slipped inside any shoe, solves the problem of portability and affordability, since the device would cost about $100.

The iShoe researchers used some of their own work and previous NASA data to determine 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.

The iShoe, with a half-dozen sensors, is not an instant alarm, though it will send out a signal if the wearer actually falls. 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 seen.

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

The iShoe has a way to go to reach the market. It's still being tested to ensure it can hold up under constant foot pounding, and Lieberman and Forth are still perfecting the software that identifies the faulty pressure patterns. Research involving the elderly is just getting under way.


Falls frequent

The National Osteoporosis Foundation estimates 300,000 people annually suffer hip fractures, which are often caused by falls. An average of 24 percent of hip fracture patients age 50 and over die within a year of the fracture.

Many fall victims who don't die within a year end up being disabled the rest of their lives.


Originally published by Jay Lindsay Associated Press .

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