Teen inventor creates tiny, pressure-sensitive sensors worn on the feet of Alzheimer’s patients who are prone to wandering. The system automatically triggers an audible alert via a smartphone app when the patient steps away from the bed.

Six in 10 people with Alzheimer’s disease are prone to wandering – walking about and leaving their homes at any time of the day or night without notifying family members. This dangerous situation can cause a lot of stress among caregivers and loved ones.

Fifteen-year-old Kenneth Shinozuka of New York experienced that anxiety firsthand when his grandfather wandered aimlessly on a freeway in the middle of the night while the rest of the family was sleeping. This event led to a formal diagnosis of Alzheimer’s for his grandfather, who has had many more wandering incidents in the years since. 

Inspired by this, Shinozuka then set out to create a wireless sensor that can communicate with a smartphone app and alert family members each time his grandfather steps out of bed to begin wandering.

His invention won him the Scientific American Science in Action Award and a place among the 15 Global Finalists announced recently as part of the preliminary competition in Google Science Fair 2014. The annual event showcases the best science and technology projects made by brilliant young minds from around the world.

The Scientific American Science in Action Award “honors a project that makes a practical difference by addressing an environmental, health or resources challenge” and gives a $50,000 prize and year-long mentoring to further develop the project, according to the magazine. 

Shinozuka – who describes himself as a “lover of technology” – said in his competition profile that he found existing technologies like GPS and radio-frequency (RF) inadequate for real-time monitoring of wandering patients. So, he created a new system that consists of an ultra-thin film sensor that can be attached to the heel of a foot, sock or shoe. The sensor connects wirelessly via Bluetooth to a quarter coin-sized printed circuit board that he custom-made himself. The tiny board, also attached to the sock, acquires the wireless signals from the sensor when it detects pressure. Once a preset pressure threshold is reached, the board wirelessly triggers an audible alert in the smartphone app within one second.

During a six-month trial, Shinozuka said that the system was 100% successful in detecting all 437 times his grandfather wandered out of bed. There were no false alarms and no accidents. And his grandfather’s caregiver reported having slept better knowing that the device can send an alert. 

“I will never forget how deeply moved my entire family was when they first witnessed my sensor detecting Grandfather’s wandering,” Shinozuka said in his project profile page. “At that moment, I was struck by the power of technology to change lives. I am now even more motivated to pursue my passion for technological innovations that solve health care problems facing our increasingly aging society.”

He said he is working on having hundreds of his devices manufactured and given for donation to nursing homes with patients who have Alzheimer’s. He hopes his invention could be tested on a larger group of patients and that the findings would “lead to a fundamental understanding of the causes of wandering and thus ways to mitigate or prevent it.” 

Details of Shinozuka’s award-winning system can be found in his project page entitled “Wearable Sensors: A Novel Healthcare Solution For The Aging Society.” He and his project will compete for the grand prize in the event’s 15-to-16-year-old age category.

Other digital health-related projects included as finalists were:

- Talk: An Innovative Alternative Communication Device (AAC) for People with Developmental Disabilities (Arsh Dilbagi - India)

- The Therenim: A Touch-less Respiratory Monitor (Eswar Anandapadmanaban - USA)

- Non-invasive Search For Optimal Triple Negative Breast Cancer Treatment (Daniela Lee and Sadhika Malladi)

The 15 Global Finalists of Google Science Fair 2014 bested thousands of participants from 90 countries around the world. They will present their projects before a panel of judges composed of scientists and innovators at Google’s headquarters this September. The grand prize winner, to be announced on September 22, will receive $50,000 in scholarship funding from Google, among other prizes from partners Scientific American, National Geographic, Virgin Galactic, Lego, and over 20 educator organizations.