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Early Alzheimer's detection is a team effort at UWF

As part of their capstone project, UWF undergraduate students helped develop Pulsed Medical LED goggles for the early detection of Alzheimer’s Disease.
As part of their capstone project, UWF undergraduate students helped develop Pulsed Medical LED goggles for the early detection of Alzheimer’s Disease.

A student capstone research project at the University of West Florida is literally shining a light to help detect Alzheimer’s disease and other disorders. The light comes from a set of Pulsed Medical LED gogglesthat were developed, researched and designed by faculty and undergraduate students at UWF.

“This device, we consider it to be an adaptive strobe where we use the presentation, or the repeated presentation of a strobe flash to see how well the brain handles that information,” said Dr. James Arruda, a professor in the department of psychology at UWF who has been researching Alzheimer’s and mild cognitive impairment for years. “This strobe that we’ve been working on could also be used for clinical work that’s being done with seizure disorders, for the detection of seizure disorders. So there are likely research and also additional clinical applications associated with this device that we’ve been working on.”

The project is a collaboration between Dr. Arruda in the department of Psychology, Dr. Aaron Wade in the department of Physics, and Dr. Mohamed Khabou in the department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at UWF.

“It was very intense,” said Sierra Kautz, a recent UWF graduate with a degree in electrical engineering. “We had our fingers in everything in the circuit design and build. From soldering the smallest component to running 16 feet of wire through heat-shrink tubing. Just the fact of it going towards helping people in the future (is special), because I know family members, and friends who have family members that have had some sort of mental impairment. And knowing that this could potentially help them have better quality of life is really nice.”

“Just making any sort of difference, that’s what we want to do as engineers. Just create products that will better other people’s lives,” said Mark Yepishan, another recent UWF graduate with a degree in electrical engineering.

He says that working with the brain was not what he expected when he majored in engineering.

“I remember when I would tell my friends or family about this project they would start asking me questions about the neuro-science part of the project. And I would say ‘no, no, no, that’s not me. I’m just (working on) the circuitry’.”

But that’s not really the whole story. Professor Arruda says these engineering students did a lot more for this project than fiddle with some wires.

“I know of you ask them they’ll say it wasn’t that difficult or it was straight-forward. But it was anything but,” said Arruda. “Because it really involves LEDs that are able to produce specific wavelengths controlling the four different types of visual receptors within the eye. So that was one part, but the other is to control the amount of energy, the specific amount of energy coming out of each one of them, the duration of that energy. Also timing it appropriately. And so they had to program a series of computer boards to be able to control these LEDs in a way that they had to be controlled. So (what they did) was a big deal.”

So where does this project go from here? There is a working prototype of the goggles and data will continue to be gathered. Without getting too deep into the technical and medical woods, no device that works with the human brain can be a one size fits all deal. In this case, people have different visual receptors in their brains that recognize light and color. Individual eyes filter light and color differently into the brain. These are factors that cause different reactions to different stimuli.

In the end, Dr. Arruda sees this device as just one of many tools health care professionals can use in diagnosing dementia or seizure disorders.

“Within the medical community, you’ll never see just one test,” said Arruda. “Typically, there’s a battery of tests. So I can imagine that this would play a role as one part of a battery to help with, what they call, differential diagnosis.”

Now that another semester is underway at UWF, the project will continue with new students stepping up to make new discoveries.

”It’s been great working with everyone,” said Arruda. “It’s been a great collaboration. I think it’s a very good example of how people do collaborate, students and faculty here at this university. You know there are some topics that one can do on one’s own up to a point. But if you really want to knock it out of the park, you really do have to know your limitations and bring in people who are experts who you can collaborate with.”

And from the student collaborators viewpoint, letting go of this project will be tough. “I’ve mentioned to Dr. Arruda and Dr. Wade as well that if they would like anything from me in the future on this that I’m more than happy to come back and help out,” said Kautz.

“Towards the end of the semester I remember me and Sierra had a conversation where we were like ‘Eventually we will have to let this project go, no matter how much work we put into it,’” said Yepishan.

Sierra Kautz smiled and added, “Yeah, it won’t be our baby forever.”

Bob Barrett has been a radio broadcaster since the mid 1970s and has worked at stations from northern New York to south Florida and, oddly, has been able to make a living that way. He began work in public radio in 2001. Over the years he has produced nationally syndicated programs such as The Environment Show and The Health Show for Northeast Public Radio's National Productions.