One of the most promising uses for the Apple Watch is its potential for improving health and fitness. And now, thanks to a new study from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, the Watch is being used for the first time as a tool to help those diagnosed with epilepsy.
EpiWatch, an app the school launched on Thursday, will be the first to take advantage of the sensors in Apple's wearable device for a medical study, said Gregory Krauss, a Johns Hopkins University professor of neurology and physician who specializes in the treatment of epilepsy.
There are already devices on the market that can take these measurements individually, Krauss said. But there's no tool with quite the reach and versatility of the Watch. From its vantage point on an epileptic's wrist, the device can directly measure limb movement while also monitoring the blood flowing through the veins of someone in the throes of a seizure. The Watch's multiple sensors makes it far easier to collect all of that information and look at it together.
"It's been a goal to have a method for detecting when a person's first going into a seizure" for years, Krauss said. Now, the sensors in the Apple Watch give patients and researchers a unique way to measure several important measures such as heart rate, lucidity during a seizure and limb movement.
The school is using Apple's ResearchKit, an open-source toolbox for medical studies introduced in March. Building on Apple's secure framework for collecting information, scientists can enroll study participants and collect data from Apple gadgets through specially designed apps. In addition to epilepsy, researches have used to the tool to gather data for studies on breast cancer, asthma, heart disease, autism and melanoma.
It's easy to see why medical researchers have embraced this opportunity. Traditionally, studies require scientists to seek out participants from their local area, give them long forms to fill out, and schedule regular follow-up appointments. With the Watch, anyone can download an app, register electronically from the comfort of their own home and agree to feed information back to researchers from across the country — no appointment needed.
The information gathered from the Hopkins study will help researchers design and launch an app specifically for people suffering from epilepsy, Krauss said. That will give those with epilepsy a way to notify their loved ones automatically when they've had a seizure and to help individuals track the condition and, with luck, make it easier to manage.
In addition to putting the research app on the App Store, Krauss said that his team is reaching out to epilepsy support groups to find study participants.
The research app was developed with Thread Research, a developer that specializes in ResearchKit; Acuma Medical provides the back-end data processing. The study was designed with the university's institutional review board, and data collected from Watch users will be analyzed alongside data researchers collect from in-person and other more traditional tests.
So how does it work? Krauss said that many people with epilepsy often experience warning sign symptoms, known as an aura. When someone enrolled in the study senses a seizure is about to happen, he or she can then activate the app — or have a caregiver activate it — to collect information on what's to come.
Once the app is activated, the heart rate sensor, accelerometer and gyroscope all turn on for ten minutes, which Krauss said is longer than the duration of a normal seizure. After a certain period of time, the app will also directly ask a Watch-wearer whether what it sensed was a seizure. It will also ask whether the person has taken medication that day.
The app can also administer tests. Patients may be asked to tap a circle to test responsiveness, Krauss said, to test their mental state, or to take a memory test as a way to measure recovery.
This is all valuable information for researchers. But, Krauss said, there are a number of support features built into EpiWatch that may be just as important. Doctors often ask epileptics to log their seizures so individuals can look for patterns in their own lives, and in their own behaviors, to find possible triggers.
It's also designed to nudge people to take their medicine more regularly, as skipping doses is one of the most common triggers, Krauss said. One feature, for example, lets you compare how well you adhere to your prescribed treatment against other (anonymized) people in the study — an attempt to gamify the tedious ritual of taking your medicine. The app may also be able to help possible side effects from medication.
Krauss said that he hopes that a year of having people use EpiWatch will give researchers enough data to make a truly useful education and management tool for those with epilepsy. His team have already received requests from early testers who have asked for the app to include more education features, so they can learn more about what they're facing.
"It's pretty disabling condition and people are eager to have tools like this. Families want it for children; they want to work on management," he said. Being able to offer a measure of independence to epileptics, he said, may be important as the research benefits of EpiWatch. "This is a personal product, not a physician product," he said.