Can Chips Cure Alzheimer’s?

Zina Moukheiber, 05.13.04, 12:45 PM ET LOS ANGELES –

Next month, giant chipmaker Intel will start tracking the lifestyle of 11 patients in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease by deploying dozens of wireless sensors around their homes. Over a period of two months, the company will monitor how much time patients spend interacting with relatives and friends, and relay the information electronically to their caregivers.

If the system works, Intel (nasdaq: INTC – news – people ) plans to place the technology next year in some 200 households where people 80 years and older live. Their memory will still be intact. But the statistics are grim. Half will probably develop some form of dementia at some point. The technology that Intel is putting together could allow patients to cope with daily life by prompting them to call someone, eat breakfast or take their medicine. It can also alert a caregiver that a patient hasn't slept, for example. "It sounds trivial but it's the difference between staying at home, or going to a nursing home," says Eric Dishman, a sociologist who's spearheading the project at Intel.

The burden of Alzheimer's on society is huge. According to the Alzheimer's Association, 4.5 million people in the United States suffer from the neurological disease. Alzheimer's gradually robs people of their cognitive skills, making them unable to remember, think or function normally. The health care costs are steep, ranging between $100 billion and $125 billion annually. Unfortunately, there is no cure and the panoply of drugs is limited.

Pfizer (nyse: PFE – news – people ) markets Aricept, Novartis (nyse: NVS – news – people ) sells Exelon, and Johnson & Johnson (nyse: JNJ – news – people ) has Reminyl. Last year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Namenda by Forest Laboratories (nyse: FRX – news – people ). These medicines all tackle the symptoms of the disease by trying to slow down memory loss, but the results are mixed.

Intel is not waiting for a cure: It wants a piece of the Alzheimer's market, which is expected to more than triple by 2050 as the U.S. population ages. "This is a new market for Intel," says Dishman, who hopes home health care will translate into sales of more chips in laptops, cell phones and PDAs. The wireless sensor program comes on top of the $1 million Intel pledged when it created a consortium with the Alzheimer's Association last July called Everyday Technologies for Alzheimer Care.

ETAC is now reviewing 40 applicants from academia and hopes to raise a total $4 million in June from other technology companies. The idea for using technology to assist Alzheimer's patients goes back to 1999, when Dishman was studying the use of broadband connection in 100 households to download movies or allow viewers to simultaneously watch a TV show and chat about it. Users thought, why not use the technology to connect with an ailing parent?

Dishman's grandmother had succumbed to Alzheimer's, and he had seen firsthand his mother and aunts struggle to care for her. He started doing some fieldwork, spending one year observing the lifestyle of 100 patients with Alzheimer's. "We went from digital entertainment to dementia," he says. In 2002, Intel formed Dishman's unit, dubbed Proactive Health Research, to explore the use of technology to help aging people at home.

The company won't disclose how much it is spending on its new venture, but the division is small, with 12 engineers and social scientists. In its new project, Intel will be using off-the-shelf sensors that wirelessly transmit data to a computer. It will place them in kitchens, bathrooms, phones and computers in households in Portland, Ore., and Las Vegas. Through the use of algorithms, it will then crunch the data to measure how much time a patient spends on the phone, talking to visitors or e-mailing. Intel will then formulate a so-called sociability index, which it will analyze over a two-month period to gauge any cognitive decline. "It's a starting place," says Dishman. "It can ease the stress until there's a cure."

Source: Forbes Magazine (online at

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