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URMC / Clinical & Translational Science Institute / Stories / August 2021 / Digital Health Seedling: Using Wearable Tech to Speed ALS Diagnosis and Study Autism Stressors

Digital Health Seedling: Using Wearable Tech to Speed ALS Diagnosis and Study Autism Stressors

Digital health technologies are poised to change the way we study health, develop therapies and treat diseases. In the fall of 2020, as part of the new Digital Health and Regulatory Science Core the UR CTSI launched the Digital Health Seedling, a new one-year award of up to $25,000 for studies that use or develop digital health tools, methods or approaches such as electronic medical records, sensors and mobile technologies, real world data, or social media.  

The first two projects to receive this funding are studying how to use wearable technologies to detect amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) earlier and to better understand the factors that contribute to stress among children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and their parents/caregivers.

Speeding ALS Diagnosis

ALS is a devastating neurodegenerative disease marked by loss of muscle control. Despite the relentlessly progressive nature of ALS, diagnosis is often delayed due to poor diagnostic criteria, causing patients to miss a critical early therapeutic window.

With Digital Health Seedling funding awarded in 2020, Peter Creigh, M.D., assistant professor of Neurology at URMC, is investigating whether wearable digital sensors – like the Apple Watch – could detect the subtle changes in motor function that occur early in ALS. Rather than relying on periodic in-person clinic visits, Creigh is measuring motor function remotely and frequently through these sensors. Using machine learning, he hopes to identify patterns in the motor function data provided by the sensors. Those patterns, he hopes, will help diagnose ALS earlier and allow patients to start treatment or join clinical trials at a time when they are more like to be effective.

Understanding Stress and Arousal in Autism

In the U.S., parents are often the primary caregivers of individuals with ASD and they typically experience greater stress and anxiety than other parents. Previous research has shown that parenting stress can negatively impact children with ASD and can even counteract the positive effects of early intervention programs.

Suzannah Iadarola, Ph.D., associate professor of Pediatrics at URMC, and her collaborators Kenneth Shamlian, Psy.D. (URMC), Samantha Daley, Ed.D. (Warner School of Education), Zhi Zheng, Ph.D. (Rochester Institute of Technology) and Peter Bajorski, Ph.D. (RIT), plan to use their newly-awarded Digital Health Seedling to better understand the bidirectional effects of stress and arousal in children with autism spectrum disorder and their caregivers. The research team will use a wearable research device, Empatica E4, to measure physiological stress (heart rate, movements, skin conductance and temperature) in parents and their children. Caregivers will also document major daily transitions and instances of challenging behavior to add context to the data.

From this data, they will look for relationships between parent and child physiologic and self-reported stress as well as reported transitions and challenging behaviors. Understanding how these factors impact one another may help the team devise ways for parents and children to reduce, avoid or better cope with stress as a family unit.

As we see the growth of digital health, coincidentally all of the new awardees in the UR CTSI’s KL2 Career Development Program are also using or studying digital health tools.  The projects include digital health applications to prevent suicide and develop better diagnostics for hypertension and small intestine function. Learn more about the digital health-focused projects of our new crop of KL2 awardees. 


The projects described above are supported by the University of Rochester CTSA award number UL1 TR002001 and KL2 TR001999 from the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences of the National Institutes of Health.

Michael Hazard | 8/27/2021

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