12 Dec 2007   |   News

Microsoft gives $550,000 in academic grants to test memory device

A wearable camera that takes a photograph every 30 seconds can help improve the recall of people with memory impairment and those suffering from neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s Disease.

SenseCam, a palm size device worn around the user’s neck, takes a wide-angle image automatically every 30 seconds, or whenever the surroundings change markedly.  The images are downloaded to a computer for the patient to review a slideshow of their day.  

In initial trials involving 20 subjects, the process has been shown to be effective in stimulating memories and in retaining those memories for the longer-term.

SenseCam was developed by Microsoft at its laboratory in Cambridge, and the company is now putting in $550,000 to fund six further projects into its use.

Emma Berry, a clinical neuropsychologist working on the programme, says the images taken by SenseCam are the strongest means of improving memory recall discovered to date.  In one woman suffering from severe memory impairment, the images sparked memories that would otherwise have been forgotten, and had a more powerful effect than other memory aides, such as keeping a diary.  

Berry said that the woman was able to recall the emotions and sensations associated with the photographs. “She was even describing things that weren’t happening, that weren’t shown in the images such as thoughts, feelings, how people behaved towards her, the quality of the food, so she wasn’t just learning the memories.”

Berry believes the woman had stored the memories but was unable to access them. “The SenseCam can provide a very powerful cue.  When she sees the images, the memories come flooding back.”

The woman was able to remember an event 10 months later, without reviewing the images. This contrasts with using a diary as a memory aid. “With the diary, after one month she had no memory of having used a written diary, or of the events at all,” said Berry.

Alzheimer’s sufferers in the trial experienced similar improvements in their memories, raising questions about how exactly the technique works. It is hoped to answer these in the six follow-on projects, which will be carried out by memory and dementia rehabilitation experts.

“We really need to know exactly how this is working, why it’s so effective, how it’s so effective, and then we can start developing it further, and think more about how we can use this device for people with memory impairment,” added Berry.

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