Microsoft’s SenseCam helps advance the study of neuroscience by enabling memory recall and opening the pathway for the development of new rehabilitation treatments.
The wearable camera that brings back the memories
Results of a new study, published in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry with Practical Neurology (JNNP) in March 2009, provides evidence that Microsoft Research's innovative SenseCam technology may help people who suffer from memory loss by enabling them to recall previously inaccessible memories.
Developed by Microsoft Research in Cambridge, SenseCam is a specialised wearable digital camera that is designed to take photographs passively, without any user intervention. It is fitted with a wide-angle lens that captures nearly everything in the patient's field-of-view, providing an ongoing sensory “aide memoire“.
Despite the large percentage of the population affected by memory problems, rehabilitation methods have not previously benefitted from any significant technology breakthroughs. Tools that exist to improve memory, such as alarms, diaries and calendars, are often especially difficult for cognitively impaired people to use and therefore have limited effectiveness.
Microsoft Research has been conducting clinical trials to evaluate SenseCam as a memory aid for patients with diagnosed memory loss conditions, including those with Alzheimer's. Its most recent study – just concluded – was run in collaboration with Addenbrooke's Hospital and the Medical Research Council Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, Cambridge, and investigated how SenseCam affects neurological activity in different areas of the brain.
By tracking brain activity through fMRI scans, researchers have been able to show that memories are not simply recited by patients by recalling SenseCam images, but actually remembered. It appears that SenseCam images provide powerful cues which effect a natural recollection of the experience, including thoughts, feelings and occurrences that are not captured in the images themselves.
Dr Emma Berry, a clinical neuropsychologist at Addenbrooke's Hospital in Cambridge and the University of Hertfordshire, describes in the JNNP paper the case of a woman with amnesia who has started to recall and review past events by using the SenseCam device.
The latest results suggest that using SenseCam to record and review images of past events provides improvements in autobiographical memory, even when a patient has a severe amnesic syndrome.
“Until now, the neural basis for our patient's memory improvement has been unknown,” says Berry. “But through the results of this study, we've found evidence to suggest that these events were remembered and not just learned from excessive exposure to the SenseCam images. Our fMRI study shows that when she looks at the images, she not only remembers the event, which is incredible given the level of her amnesic syndrome, but that she activates parts of the brain associated with normal episodic memory“.
“We don't know of any other device, tool or method that is as effective as SenseCam for people who would ordinarily forget a significant, meaningful event within days of it happening”, says Dr Steve Hodges, Principal Hardware Engineer & Manager at the Sensors and Devices Group in Microsoft Research Cambridge.
Hodges adds: “It's clear that SenseCam has a huge potential both as a memory aid and as a tool for clinicians to better understand cognitive brain functions and further advance the study of neuroscience. We're really excited to be able to extend the project to actively involve so many leading researchers and clinicians around the world. Ultimately, if we can conclusively demonstrate that SenseCam can improve memory, and thereby the quality of life, in patients with amnesia and memory loss from neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's, that would be an absolutely tremendous result.”
Images recorded by a wearable digital camera with a wide-angle lens help prompt the user’s memory.
SenseCam is one of many exciting projects from the Sensors and Devices Group at Microsoft Research in Cambridge. The group works with a variety of new technologies and collaborates closely with researchers from other disciplines with the goal of understanding how these will impact traditional computing and change the ways in which people use and interact with computing devices.
The group has a number of partnerships and collaborations with academic and medical memory experts to address specific research questions and further their understanding of how SenseCam appears to give such dramatic results in improving memory recall. The fMRI study is a result of one of these collaborations.
Dr Adrian Owen, a Senior Scientist at the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit where the patient was scanned, adds: “Brain imaging techniques such as fMRI are now beginning to contribute dramatically to our understanding of the causes of various clinical diseases and how devastating conditions such as profound memory loss might best be tackled. This is one very exciting example of that. Our brain scans show why this patient has such a poor memory, but more importantly, they give us some important new clues about how it is that Sense- Cam improves it.”