This stick-on patch could keep tabs on stroke patients at home

Motion sensors track speech and swallowing patterns

man with sensors on neck

THROAT MOTION These Band-Aid‒like throat sensors can monitor the recovery of stroke survivors long after they leave the hospital.

Elliott Abel/Shirley Ryan AbilityLab

AUSTIN, Texas — Stretchy sensors that stick to the throat could track the long-term recovery of stroke survivors.

These new Band-Aid‒shaped devices contain motion sensors that detect muscle movement and vocal cord vibrations. That sensor data could help doctors diagnose and monitor the effectiveness of certain treatments for post-stroke conditions like difficulty swallowing or talking, researchers reported February 17 in a news conference at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Up to 65 percent of stroke survivors have trouble swallowing, and about a third of survivors have trouble carrying on conversations.

The devices can monitor speech patterns more reliably than microphones by sensing tissue movement rather than recording sound. “You don’t pick up anything in terms of ambient noise,” says study coauthor John Rogers, a materials scientist and bioengineer at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. “You can be next to an airplane jet engine. You’re not going to see that in the [sensor] signal.”

Developed by Rogers’ team, the sensors have built-in 12-hour rechargeable batteries and continually stream motion data to a smartphone. Researchers are now testing the sensors with real stroke patients to see how the devices can be made more user-friendly. For instance, Rogers’ team realized that patients were unlikely to wear sensors that were too easily visible. By equipping the patches with more sensitive motion sensors, they can be worn lower on a person’s neck, hidden behind a buttoned-up shirt, and still pick up throat motion.

These kinds of sensors could also track the recovery of neck cancer patients, who commonly develop swallowing and speaking problems caused by radiation therapy and surgery, Rogers says. The devices can also measure breathing and heart rates to monitor sleep quality and help diagnose sleep apnea. Rogers expects this wearable tech to be ready for widespread use within the next year or two.

Previously the staff writer for physical sciences at Science News, Maria Temming is the assistant managing editor at Science News Explores. She has bachelor's degrees in physics and English, and a master's in science writing.

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