pictures courtesy of Karthik Venkataramaiah

August 23, 2016

Cornell Alums Create App to Help Dementia Patients Remember

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Dementia can be truly debilitating. Categorized by the World Health Organization as a syndrome “in which there is deterioration in cognitive function,” it is a major cause of dependency in the elderly. However, a team of Cornell alumni hopes to ease this process and help dementia patients have meaningful interactions with their loved ones.

Over 47.5 million people suffer from dementia, with numbers expected to grow to 135.5 million by 2030. However, the true economic and social cost to individuals and their families is incalculable. With no cure, the support of family and friends becomes crucial but is often difficult due to sufferers’ inability to communicate with or recognize those close to them.

“We found that we had all interacted with people who suffered from memory loss, commonly our grandparents and we thought we should build something that would help bring their memories back,” Karthik Venkataramaiah ’16 said.

Along with Vishal Kumkar ‘16, Shivananada Pujeri ‘16 and Mihir Shah ‘16, Venkataramaiah created a smartphone app that helps dementia sufferers “stay connected to their memories.” The team presented this innovation at the 123rd Annual Conference of the American Society for Engineering Education.

“Given the cognitive difficulties of patients, one of the main challenges in designing the application was to keep it simple for them to use,”Venkataramaiah said. “So, we made sure that all they had to do was keep the phone with them.”

In fact, other than registration, there is nothing else a patient needs to do. Instead, the app is also installed on the phones of primary caregivers and family and friends. Caregivers can remind patients to take their medication and make phone calls whereas family and friends can upload pictures.

To enable patients to recognize their loved ones, a slideshow of these memories is then shown each time a family member or friend calls, texts or approaches within 25 feet of the patient. Visual aids help stimulate memory and their use in this feature, known as “Who am I?”, is important because it helps patients reminisce and become more comfortable in social settings.

“We spent a lot of time brainstorming different approaches to solve these problems,” Venkataramaiah said. “There has been a lot of research on managing dementia and we wanted to combine that with our experience as software developers.”

The team also discovered some very important uses during testing which were later incorporated into the app.

“While testing the application, something we found particularly heartbreaking was that patients often lost their train of thought and to help, we’ve built in a Coherent Speech Assistant that suggests questions that they can ask the person they’re conversing with,” Venkataramaiah continued.

The assistant will use Natural Language Processing techniques to predict the patient’s next sentence, allowing it to keep track of the conversation. Along with data and patient-related life events entered by family, this allows the assistant to create relevant, personal questions instead of a set of general ones.

“There are a few applications which try to solve similar problems, but what differentiates us is that all these features make it a one-stop app to help people with memory loss,” Venkataramaiah said.

However, Venkataramaiah insists that work on the app remains, even post its roll-out on Google’s Play Store late September. The team plans to coordinate with facilities that support dementia patients and their families to evaluate the usefulness of each feature.

“As more people use the application, we should be able to accumulate data about how it’s used as well as any further needs of these patients,” Venkataramaiah said.

Confident that the app will transform the lives of dementia sufferers and provide further insights on how dementia may be managed, Venkataramaiah and the team hope to continue working on projects that support those with chronic illnesses.

“We love to develop novel things and working on this application has definitely been a great experience, especially because of the difference it will make to people’s lives,” Venkataramaiah said.