Carnegie Mellon University

PhD student Jonathan Fagert works with young amish boy

July 30, 2019

Amish Embrace Technology to Help Children

For years, the Amish – who by-and-large eschew modern technology – have been struggling with a form of Muscular Dystrophy disabling and causing the premature death of many of their children. Desperate for help, one enclave has welcomed the most modern of technology in an effort to save their young.

Hae Young Noh, CEE associate professor, and her team are using sensors that collect data on human movement in the enclave’s community center – the only building with electricity – to help detect anomalies in the movement of the children there. Noh says the sensors detect footsteps, which, like fingerprints, are unique to each individual person. The data generated can detect unsteadiness, cognitive and mobility decline, and predict falls. Such information in young children would be unusual, and, allows for early detection – and early treatment – of Muscular Dystrophy in the community.

“I think it tells you that Muscular Dystrophy is a really big deal for the Amish Community,” Noh says.

A doctor from Ohio’s Nationwide Children’s Hospital had approached Noh and Pei Zhang, Noh’s research partner and ECE associate research professor, about using their sensors to help her Amish patients. The doctor had attended a talk by Noh and Zhang about their sensors and how they were being used in nursing homes and hospitals when she saw a potential for helping her patients.

Mostafa Mirshekari and Jonathon Fagert, both PhD students, visited the Amish community with the doctors and collected data for the project. Mirshekari, Fagert, and Shijia Pan, a PhD student at the time, worked with Noh and Zhang on the sensors’ applications in nursing care facilities and hospitals. Pan is now a postdoctoral scholar.

“That’s the beauty of working as a researcher, especially in academia,” she says. “One project leads to another and it’s always something I never knew before. I really appreciate all these interactions, and all the feedback people give us. For me it’s a new challenge.”

Prior to applying her research in the health care realm, Noh worked with sensors to measure the structural integrity of buildings and bridges after events such as earthquakes. She later began doing research into using the sensors to generate data to help buildings themselves adapt to the activity and needs of people inside.

Noh says research is being done to determine if the sensors can also be used to detect unauthorized people entering restricted areas, and to help localize individuals and determine their identity. The data gathered by the sensors can be interlinked with machines or appliances to, for example, shut down power if an intruder is detected or to close a gas valve when someone with Alzheimer’s enters a kitchen.

Inspired, in part, by a grandmother who had Alzheimer’s, Noh finds fulfillment in being able to use the technology to help predict falls and cognitive decline or other potentially dangerous circumstances encountered by the elderly and hospital patients. Not only do the sensors help staff better care for their patients, they provide some sense of comfort to patients who may be so afraid of a fall that they simply won’t walk freely.

“For them, having regular activity is very important for their quality of life,” Noh says. “This enables the elderly to walk more. This technology helps so they are not afraid of walking on their own. That’s the best way to have them stay healthy for a long time.”