Researchers get grant to pursue smart technology

PULLMAN – WSU researchers Diane Cook, professor and Huie-Rogers Chair of electrical engineering and computer science, and Maureen Schmitter-Edgecombe, professor of psychology,  received more than $1.2 million in grant funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for their interdisciplinary research using smart adaptive technology.
The smart adaptive technology helps people with memory loss manage everyday tasks, allowing them to live independently in their homes for as long as possible. In addition to improving individual quality of life, the technology will be economically beneficial, delaying how soon nursing home care is needed.
“Keeping elderly family members in their homes as they age is a problem that many of us already know or are soon going to experience as our population continues to age,’’ said Candis Claiborn, dean of the College of Engineering and Architecture. “Through this grant, our researchers will be doing innovative work to develop smart environments that can understand and monitor our daily habits and behavior, tackling this significant national health challenge head-on.”
Grant funding comes through the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB), the newest institute of the NIH. NIBIB grants are awarded to researchers who lead the development and accelerate the application of biomedical technologies.
The four-year grant allows researchers to expand on previous work supported by Washington’s Life Sciences Discovery Fund, in which a Pullman campus apartment was retrofitted with motion sensors and voice-activated technology to mimic an in-home environment for the study.
The new grant will also further the researchers’ efforts to bring assistive technology into the homes of people with mild cognitive impairment for the purposes of health monitoring and health assistance. Two in-home deployments have been conducted in which unobtrusive motion sensors were placed on ceilings and participants were cued through voice-activated software and computer visual prompts when assistance was needed in completing a task.
The previous in-home deployments helped researchers to learn and code the types of activities occurring in the home. They also used software to cue the study’s participant to take medication via verbal and visual prompts. But given the technology’s limitations, there was no way to ascertain that the medicine had actually been taken.
“In our next iteration we’ll use the technology to monitor whether or not the participant has successfully engaged in the prompted task and then provide additional prompts when needed,” Schmitter-Edgecombe said. “The NIBIB grant will allow us to hire more staff and get things done a lot faster, enabling us to get the technology into more homes and further develop the tools we have. Right now we can only do one home at a time.”
Researchers will also use the NIBIB grant to expand research in the smart apartment, training computer algorithms to respond directly to the participant and letting the computer decide when and how to intervene, instead of the experimenters.
“We hope to gather more information about what sort of cueing works best for people, so we can consistently provide the cues that are most naturalistic, emulating what a caregiver might do,” Schmitter-Edgecombe said. “And we’ll be looking at ways to integrate this with other technologies,” she added.
Cook has been with WSU since 2006. She is the principal investigator on a $3 million Integrative Graduate Education and Research Training (IGERT) grant. IGERT is the National Science Foundation’s flagship interdisciplinary training program supporting multi-disciplinary doctoral training focused on Health-Assistive Smart Environments.
A fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Cook has published more than 270 peer-reviewed articles and has edited three books. She holds a doctorate in computer science from the University of Illinois.  Her research has also been supported by NASA, DARPA, DHS, and DOE.
A widely-published expert in the areas of mild cognitive impairment, dementia and traumatic brain injury, Schmitter-Edgecombe joined the WSU psychology faculty in 1994 after earning her doctorate from the University of Memphis.
Her research has also been supported by grants from the National Institute of Neurological and Stroke Disorders and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Schmitter-Edgecombe is also a co-PI on the IGERT grant.
“This is a great example of the kind of innovation that can be stimulated by a comprehensive research university,” said Doug Epperson, dean of WSU’s College of Liberal Arts.
“As the U.S. population grows older, our country faces an enormous problem of how to care for the increasing numbers of people with mild to moderate cognitive impairments. The NIH has a keen interest in novel approaches to this problem, and they have now made a considerable investment in a remarkable WSU team,” Epperson said.
People 50 years or older who would like to participate in this study can call the WSU research message line at 335-4033 (ext. 2) and leave their name and phone number. The study tests adults with no memory problems, mild memory problems and those diagnosed with a progressive memory disorder such as Alzheimer’s disease.