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Biosensors monitor moods, detect seizures

11 Mar 2016  | Patrick Mannion

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Mood-aware wearable devices are now able detect seizures, stress levels with biosensors. They are also able to monitor mental, health, moody teenagers and can act as a warning signal for professionals that are likely to be involved in high-stress levels such as pilots, air-traffic controllers, and possibly engineers and editors/writers on a deadline.

There have been immense improvements in sensor technology in the last couple of years alone. Along with hardware advancements for the body-worn wearable devices, these advanced sensors allow medical practitioners to monitor patients outside clinics and hospitals with greater accuracy and efficiency.

There are two fundamental types of mood-aware wearable sensors—on clothes, smartwatches, bracelets, fitness bands, etc.—that can gauge the level of anger, stress, and anxiety. First, skin sensors that track electro-dermal activity (EDA) by measuring skin conductivity. Second, heart rate variability (HRV) or heart rate monitoring (HRM) sensors that collect data from the cardiovascular and nervous systems to determine a person's stress levels.

Electro-dermal skin sensors

In 2007, MIT professor Rosalind Picard was studying stress levels in non-verbal autistic children by measuring EDA when she noticed a spike in activity that caught everyone by surprise when it turned out to indicate a seizure. That discovery led to her co-founding Empatica, Inc. to create wearable sensors and analytics to improve health, and Affectiva, Inc. to deliver technology to help measure and communicate emotion. Empatica has since developed Embrace, a wristband that measures EDA to not only detect seizures, but also to help the general population to detect and manage stress.

Empatica Embrace wristband

Figure 1: The Empatica Embrace wristband measures EDA to detect seizures and stress. (Source:

An EDA sensor typically using a galvanic skin response (GSR) technique, sending a tiny electrical pulse to one point of the skin, and measuring the level of that impulse at another point to track the skin's conductivity (Figure 2).

EDA sensors

Figure 2: EDA sensors are critically important as the skin is the only organ that is purely innervated by the sympathetic nervous system. That system is activated upon excitement or stress, whether physical, emotional, or cognitive.

A new breed of EDA sensors integrated into smartwatches and wearable bands like Embrace are now replacing wearable patches that we are used to seeing attached to specific body parts; these patches are usually posture-dependant and limit the mobility of users. Thankfully, engineers at the Florida International University and North Carolina State University are building sophisticated skin sensors that ensure greater accuracy by measuring cortisol and other physiological bio-markers.

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