Microsoft has developed a wearable camera, and I’m hanging my hopes on its success.
The device, called SenseCam, is about the size of your palm, hangs from a neck strap like a medallion and automatically snaps photos throughout the day according to your activities. For example, it can detect a change in light or body heat, so it will take a picture each time you enter a new room or step out from a shady spot; and it will capture anyone entering your immediate line of sight, say a friend who stops by for a visit.
The SenseCam may seem like just another unnecessary gadget if you aren’t aware of its purpose. It’s not meant to be amusing, it’s meant as a visual aid. Microsoft initially developed the camera as a personal black-box recorder of sorts, but it didn’t take long to discover it might help stimulate a significantly faulty memory.
While still in the research stage, the idea is for people with memory problems caused by viruses or injuries to wear the camera throughout the day and to download the images it has captured to a computer later on. Hopefully, reviewing the day’s photographs may elicit memories that would otherwise be lost. In some studies, trial participants have submitted to functional-MRI scans, the scans that detect neural activity related to specific stimuli, and portions of the brain associated with memory have been shown to light up while viewing personal photos.
Research of uses for SenseCam has been going on for some time, but developers have recently begun studying how the camera can benefit people with Alzheimer’s disease, and this new focus has caught my attention. I know and have known quite a few people with the disease, particularly my father and father-in-law, and anything that can at least help stave off its degenerative effects has my vote and watchful interest.
People with Alzheimer’s lose themselves a little bit at a time by losing memories of places, events and people that have defined their lives. In the early stages, they are fully aware of their loss, seeing people they know but not being able to name them and grasping for clues as to how they’ve spent their day but coming up empty. Sometimes all they need is a prompt, a simple visual or verbal hint to unclog their jumbled brain cells and to find themselves again.
My family created a photo album for my father that was meant as just such a visual aid, but we may have given it to him too late in the progression of his disease, and trying to identify the photos seemed more a source of frustration than comfort for him. He had already lost too much of himself.
Giving him the album sooner would not have cured his disease, but it may have helped delay it, allowing him to be himself for just a little longer. Wearing a camera that gives you a day’s worth of imagery to stimulate your short-term memory and force you to challenge your brain might do the same. Even though it’s no cure, it may prove to be just the tool Alzheimer’s patients and their caregivers need to provide an element of hope in an otherwise hopeless situation. We’ll see.
Years ago when our father was beyond the help of any available medicine, my sisters and I paid close attention to drug studies, and we took comfort in hearing researchers say they hoped to have a cure for Alzheimer’s within ten years. We recognized that cure would be too late for our father, but it might come in handy for us. Well, that decade has passed with still no cure, and even studies of causes and preventative measures seem to take one step forward and two steps back.
I’m still hoping for a medical breakthrough, either a cure or definitive rules for prevention, before my generation reaches the age when we are at greater risk for this menace of the brain. In the meantime, any tool for delaying its inevitable outcome is welcome. In fact, suit me up with a SenseCam today, and let’s see if it might stimulate new brain cells or recondition the existing ones into being friend instead of traitorous foe in the future.