Seizure-Symptom App Is Latest Apple Health Research Tool

  • Scientists at Johns Hopkins, Duke and Oregon launch trackers
  • Apps for now limited to research, not clinical practice

Someday soon, Apple Inc. iPhones and watches may be able to recognize when someone’s having an epileptic seizure, and call for help.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University have developed an app that can track and measure seizure symptoms, and is the first research app to combine sensors on both Apple’s watch and phone. Eventually, it may run in the background and alert caregivers that a patient is having an event.

For now, patients will need to activate it before a seizure starts. Many patients experience an “aura” warning of a coming seizure, which will help them turn on the program in time. Using sensors on the phone and watch, the app measures heart rate, movement and other data as the seizure progresses. The watch will also display queries designed to test whether the wearer is alert.

The app is likely to be among the first of many research and medical trackers to monitor minute-by-minute symptoms from everything from multiple sclerosis to heart and metabolic conditions like diabetes. IPhone applications have already been developed to track Parkinson’s and asthma, and there are wellness and fitness apps that track activities like walking, running and diet.

The Johns Hopkins app will let users record what type of seizure they’ve had, map them over time, and may help them figure out what may be triggering them. The app can be configured to send a text message to a caregiver when it’s activated, but can’t do so automatically right now.

Capturing Data

“The idea is to try and capture all of that data and to train algorithms that can be used in a future app that will be detecting seizures and then notifying caregivers,” Nathan Crone, a neurology professor at the Baltimore-based university, said in an interview.

The Hopkins app uses ResearchKit, Apple’s framework for medical researchers who want to make use of its devices. It’s a way of more easily gathering data on thousands of individuals than a traditional clinical trial might be able to.

Scientists at Duke University, as well as the National Cancer Institute and Oregon Health & Science University, are also introducing apps Wednesday. Like the Johns Hopkins app, for now they’re meant for research more than treatment or diagnosis.

The Duke program measures how young children respond to videos, using the iPhone’s camera to read their facial expressions and identify emotions. It’s designed to figure out whether the face-reading technology could be used to screen for developmental disorders like autism, though it’s not a diagnostic tool itself right now.

Mole Tracking

An app from Dan Webster, a researcher at the National Cancer Institute, helps users track their moles. The program is part of an initiative with Sancy Leachman, director of the melanoma research program at Oregon’s Knight Cancer Institute, to combat skin cancers. Using the app, individuals take pictures of their moles next to a standard-sized item like a coin. As people repeat the process over time, the app can figure out whether individual moles are getting larger.

The app doesn’t tell individuals whether they should have a mole removed. But if they do have one excised, the app asks for pictures of the wound as well. Eventually, that could be used to develop data on which moles individuals should be most worried about, the researchers said.

Apple highlighted five other ResearchKit apps in March, when the company introduced its medical research platform. Those apps focus on conditions including breast cancer, heart disease and asthma.

The Hopkins researchers say they hope to enroll a few thousand individuals in their app for the first phase of the research, which they expect to last about a year. In the future, they say their app could be used to monitor the side effects or efficacy of epilepsy drugs, to track whether individuals are taking their medications, or whether a patient’s disease is getting better or worse.

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