'Smart carpet' would help Alzheimer's patients keep independence

Monday, November 8, 2010 | 9:00 a.m. CST; updated 5:59 p.m. CST, Monday, November 8, 2010

COLUMBIA — An MU researcher hopes that Alzheimer's patients will soon have technology at their feet that could help them remain independent.

Harry Tyrer, an MU professor of electrical and computer engineering, has developed smart carpet, a flooring system that monitors the movements of Alzheimer's patients and can detect potentially dangerous circumstances.

If you go

The mid-Missouri chapter of the Alzheimer's Association is hosting its annual forum focusing on developments in Alzheimer's research and technology. This year's forum features speakers involved in research around the Columbia area. The forum is taking place at the Alzheimer's Association Education Center at 2400 Bluff Creek Drive in Columbia on Tuesday. Registration is $15 in advance and $20 at the door. To register in advance or to learn more about the forum, contact the Alzheimer's Association Mid-Missouri Chapter at 573-443-8665.

12:30 - 1 p.m., Registration

1 - 1:30 p.m., "Technology and Aging," Marylin Rantz

1:30 - 2 p.m., "Calling for a Breakthrough," David Oliver

2 - 2:15 p.m., Break

2:15 - 2:45 p.m., "New Insights on Botanical Polyphenols and Alzheimer's Disease," Albert Sun

2:45 - 3:15 p.m., "Smart Carpet," Harry Tyrer

3:15 - 3:45 p.m., "Diet, Stress and Alzheimer's Disease," Bradley Ferguson

3:45 - 4 p.m., "A Reason to Hope," Linda Newkirk

Tyrer, a researcher with the Center for Eldercare and Rehabilitation Technology at MU, said the purpose of the flooring system is to help patients remain both independent and safe, and to do so in an unobtrusive manner.

He will discuss his research Tuesday afternoon at a research update sponsored by the mid-Missouri chapter of the Alzheimer's Association. The event will be held at the education center at 2400 Bluff Creek Drive.

The smart carpet would also be an aid to caregivers and family members of patients, Tyrer said. The flooring system is connected to a computer program that communicates the patient's location and can call caregivers when it detects movement consistent with a fall.

Tyrer said his research team, which consists of four graduate students, is working on assessing the risk of injury associated with different types of falls and on programming the carpet system to differentiate between them.

Marylin Rantz, an MU nursing professor who is also a lead researcher with the Center for Eldercare and Rehabilitation Technology, said the carpet is also useful because it allows caretakers to keep an eye on an Alzheimer's patient's pacing activity.

The smart carpet project began in 2008 when Tyrer received a grant from the Alzheimer's Association to fund the research. Tyrer said he met the director of research at the Alzheimer's Association, who suggested he apply for a grant through Everyday Technology for Alzheimers Care.

Tyrer and his research team began their work on the project by first developing sensors for the flooring system and then the electronics that monitor and communicate patient activity. Earlier this year, they developed a working prototype.

"Basically, it was an evolutionary process," Tyrer said.

The team is now working to shrink the prototype electronics down to the size of a cell phone and to make the flooring system affordable. Tyrer said his team has identified a computer system that costs $99 and is using low-cost materials to ensure patients and their families can afford the smart carpet when installation systems become available.

Tyrer said he and his team hope to eventually test the carpet at TigerPlace, a home for older individuals with which the MU Sinclair School of Nursing has a relationship.

The smart carpet is part of a larger technological movement to help senior citizens "age in place." Rantz said the goal of aging in place programs is to enable people to stay in the home of their choice and to remain independent.

"It's important to know that technological solutions are out there," Rantz said.

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