When clothes are not just for dressing. In principle, it takes care of our health by protecting us from the elements, but several inventors hope that the benefits are much greater. Several prototypes of «smart clothing», with incorporated technology, claim to be able to detect diseases in time to be treated, such as cancer or epilepsy.
In Ancient Greece they called it «the sacred disease.» Epilepsy affects 50 million worldwide and is the most common serious mental disorder, according to the World Health Organization.
Diagnosing it, however, is not easy.
To do this, a seizure must be recorded when the patient is connected to a machine that performs electroencephalograms, a non-invasive test that allows the study of brain electrical activity.
«The symptoms of epilepsy vary greatly and there are many types of epileptic disorders that cause you to react differently to treatments,» Vincent Navarro, a neurologist at the Pitie-Salpetriere Hospital in Paris, told the BBC.
«What’s more, seizures happen at an irregular rate. So it’s rare to record a seizure while doing a standard EEG, a test that takes 20 minutes to an hour,» he added.
«And finally, in 20% of cases these types of episodes are wrongly linked to epilepsy, when they could have a completely different origin. Loss of consciousness, for example, can have a cardiac or psychiatric reason.»
Given this, the Parisian hospital is working on a project that hopes to facilitate and expedite the diagnosis of the disease.
T-shirt to detect epilepsy
Instead of being connected to a machine by means of a large number of cables, the French researchers propose that the patient wear a T-shirt equipped with biometric sensors.
These will be connected to a smartphone app, which will record the data. A similar hat will be optional.
«Instead of using desktop computers and forcing patients to be in bed, we can use smartphones and wireless connections,» Pierre Fournier, the chief executive of Bioserenity, which is developing the aforementioned system, called Wemu, told the BBC. .
«It is necessary to record the electronic activity of the brain, make an electroencephalogram. (In the case of epilepsy) the signal is very difficult to capture. It usually has a microvolt of strength, compared to others that have millivolts, a thousand times more powerful,» contextualized.
«After registering the patient’s data, the information was sent, through an internet connection, to a cloud system (which can be accessed by various users from various points) to be analyzed.»
According to Fournier, the diagnosis will not be long in coming: «It will be ready in days, like many weeks», instead of years. Thus, the patient will have access to appropriate treatment more quickly.
«Epilepsy does not have a single diagnosis,» however, Carol Ireland of Epilepsy Action Australia, an organization that supports the project, added. «In some cases, people who suffer from it are seriously disabled, making it impossible for them to lead an independent life.»
Developing such a technology means dealing with complex regulatory frameworks, those responsible will point out.
Working with clothing also involves particular challenges. «The limitation is set by the sensors, their durability,» Paul Sonnier, editor of the specialized medium, selected the BBC Digital Health Post.
«Since electronic elements have to be integrated into clothing, it is necessary to think about whether this can be washed, for example.»
And of course, developing a complex technology takes time.
bra against cancer
For about 20 years there has been a debate in various sectors about a bra capable of detecting breast cancer.
Meanwhile, a company called First Warning Systems (Sistemas de Aviso Primario, in Spanish) announced in 2012 a prototype bra that purports to use dynamic thermal measurement.
This garment records the variation in body temperature, information that is then analyzed by algorithms in order to detect tumors
Despite initial skepticism from the industry, the company has continued to develop the bra.
It now includes a removable element instead of embedded sensors, to facilitate its use by the corresponding health system. They have also improved the data processing algorithm.
«During clinical trials our technology was able to detect cancers that mammography missed, because they were very small tumors, for example,» explains company president Rob Royea.
A fourth round of tests is planned for October and the company has already applied for the CE mark, the European Conformity, the certificate that the product meets the requirements of European legislation regarding health, safety and environmental protection. And also the accreditation of the Food and Drug Administration, to be able to introduce it in the US market.
According to Sonnier, there is a need to educate consumers about wearable devices, such as the bra or T-shirt for diagnosing illnesses.
But also persuade the medical community about the merits of this type of technology. «That’s the big challenge, because in the past doctors have not trusted the information obtained in this way.»
exercise even healthier
OMSignal manufactures a range of smart fitness clothing. These include biometric sensors that measure performance and additionally provide the user with an electrocardiogram.
In this case, as in the case of the T-shirt that can detect epileptic seizures, the collected data goes directly to a smartphone app. In turn, information can be accessed in a cloud system, so that it can be analyzed through complex algorithms.»
This technology is more effective than a bracelet, the company says.
«We necessarily wear clothing, so we think it’s the best place to put the sensors,» said Jesse Slade Shantz, OMSignal’s chief medical officer.
And he said that he himself has tried these smart shirts. «It’s like the clothes you wear every day.»
The doctor had originally been tasked with investigating whether there was a technology to replace the Holter monitor, a wearable heart tracker.
«The idea was that, since there is a large market, that could be the goose that lays the golden eggs,» he confessed.
And he added: «But I know how doctors are, because I am one of them. For a doctor to agree to replace something they use and that works for them with this type of technology is very difficult.»
«That’s not to mention the fact that, particularly in the United States, one of the biggest markets for these technologies, doctors get paid to make people wear a Holter heart monitor,» he said.
«So we had to be realistic and think about what would be a sustainable business.»
Consumption of wearable smart devices is expected to grow from 9.7 million in 2013 to 135 million in 2018, according to CCS Insight, a device information and networking company.
As the incorporation of technology into clothing improves and we become comfortable with the idea of our underwear knowing when and where, these garments will become the best way to carry smart technology in everyday life.
Pierre Fournier, from Wemu, is confident of it. Diagnosis is only the beginning. He wants the technology to tell people who witness an epileptic seizure what to do.
«And the final step will be to get to the point where you can predict when a seizure is going to happen. That could revolutionize the lives of patients,» he exclaimed.
Carol Ireland, of Epilepsy Action Australia, agrees.
«In many countries there are still misunderstandings and even stigma surrounding the disease,» he said.
«Many people who have epilepsy are faced with the dilemma of going public and risking a backlash from other members of the community. Depression and even suicide are more common in people diagnosed with epilepsy than in the general population.» .
Faced with this, he believes that an accurate diagnosis of the syndrome and effective management of the disease are essential for patients to have a better quality of life.