August 1, 2008
As a NASA intern studying astronaut balance problems, Erez Lieberman had an extra motive: nearly a decade earlier his grandmother had broken her hip in a fall and died soon after. Now the 28-year-old graduate student wants to use technology he developed for returning space travelers to spare other elderly people a similar fate.
His invention is the "iShoe," an insole stuffed with sensors that can transmit information on a person's balance, providing an early warning system before falls. The iShoe contains pressure sensors, a built-in memory and a transmitter that can send data using Bluetooth technology to a device like a laptop or cell phone. Eventually, that data will be transmitted online and return a balance assessment, Lieberman said.
Future versions might stimulate feet to prevent a tumble or sound an alarm when the wearer goes down."There are a hundred-something astronauts, but the people who really need [the technology] the most are the millions of seniors and aging people in the United States and abroad," Lieberman said. "There are really no good diagnostics for poor balance."
One in three people age 65 and older fall each year, according to the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 300,000 hip fractures occur each year, nearly all of them caused by falls and most occurring in older women, the CDC said. About 1 in 5 people with broken hips die within a year of the injury. With the population rapidly growing gray, the annual number of broken hips could reach 650,000 by 2050, the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons says. The needs of an aging population have researchers and companies scrambling for solutions.
The AgeLab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is researching ways to keep older drivers safe and high-tech clothes to monitor chronic health conditions like osteoporosis. A Virginia Tech engineering team has designed pants containing small electronics that monitor movement and transmit data. The researchers found an unstable walking gait can indicate a person has a high risk of falling.
Lieberman, who studies in a joint Harvard-MIT health science and technology program, spent his time at NASA last summer working on the balance problems suffered by returning astronauts, who are thrown off-kilter by extended stays in a weightless environment. NASA tests them in a box the size of an old phone booth that has shifting surfaces and walls. All standing people regularly shift their weight to maintain balance, changing the pressure on their feet, Lieberman said. People with poor stability shift more often, but may not be aware of it. "The way that a person distributes pressure on their feet is different when they're balancing well versus when they're balancing poorly," he said. The iShoe technology can detect patterns of pressure associated with these problems, Lieberman said. He and his team have applied for a patent to be held by MIT, Harvard and NASA.
Lieberman, a Hertz Fellow who also receives funding from the National Science Foundation and the Department of Defense, started a company to bring the iShoe to the public. While the company won a $50,000 grant in April to help with start-up costs, it has been run on a "shoestring budget" and is now looking for venture capital backing, Lieberman said. With enough support, iShoe insoles could be commercially available within 18 to 24 months, with a pair probably costing between $100 and $300, he said.
SOURCE: Atlanta Journal Constitution
An iShoe insole contains sensors that read how well a person is balancing. The purpose is to gather information for doctors and get people to a specialist before they fall.
About the iShoe
Worn continuously, data from the sensors are transferred by Bluetooth network for computer analysis of balancing ability. Sensors are powered by a nickel-sized battery. The iShoe has fewer than 10 sensors,depending on the model.
SOURCES: Erez Lieberman and Ricardo Piedrahita