Wrapped around wrists as smartwatches or bracelets, wearables are fun and informative. Engaging. We track steps and heart rate, record workouts — even check messages and answer calls.
Wearables are not, however, clinical tools. Nor are they threaded into our clothes.
Not yet, anyway.
Asimina Kiourti believes wearable technology can become a vital and seamless part of diagnostic health tools that provide major health benefits, improving and prolonging lives.
“Wearables right now are not medical grade devices,” says Kiourti, an associate professor in the department of electrical and computer engineering. “That’s what I want to change, the status quo.
“I started working in the field because I wanted to help people. I’m always working at the intersection of engineering and medicine and the more I interact with different disciplines, the more I see the need. That’s clearly the drive, identifying those needs and trying to meet them.”
Kiourti often works hand-in-hand with researchers from the Wexner Medical Center, the College of Nursing and the College of Veterinary Medicine to explore avenues to improve lives and health outcomes through innovative technology. Her wide array of projects includes wearable clothing to monitor the motion of the body, wireless implants for Parkinson’s and epilepsy patients, heart monitors to measure cognitive workload in young concussion sufferers and games for children with severe disabilities.
“We’re interested in developing sensors that do not exist. I always want to think 10, 20 years ahead,” Kiourti says. “What’s going to happen? And much like cellphones have evolved, we try to be visionary with wearables too.”
A new project will take that mindset and her lab’s research to NASA’s Johnson Space Center and, possibly one day, to space itself.
Allyanna Rice, a PhD student from Kiourti’s Wearable and Implantable Technologies lab, was awarded a fellowship with NASA to develop wearable antennas that will monitor astronauts’ physiology during space travel.
The work could help astronauts endure longer missions — say, a six-month trip to Mars or colonizing the moon. Research has found that long periods of zero gravity lead to potentially dangerous health outcomes such as muscle atrophy, decreased bone density and fluid shifting throughout the body, among other issues.
“We’re envisioning a sleeve or article of clothing that would go around the leg with antennas placed on it that would monitor muscle and bone loss over time,” Rice says. “Using those antennas, we’re hoping to monitor bone density loss, muscle atrophy, fluid shift, things like that they can use to gather data and apply appropriate counter measures as they see fit.”
Rice will work closely with NASA scientists during the four-year fellowship, including Michael Khayat on the applied electromagnetics side and Baraquiel Reyna, who manages the human research program.
Khayat says Rice’s wearable device already has come a long way in the antenna design. The challenge now is to get it to interact accurately with the human body.
“This is an extraordinarily complicated problem we’re trying to solve,” Khayat says. “Seeing Ally’s proposal and the benefit we’ll get from her work is exciting. It’s a great project.
“You may not solve this problem in two years, it’s certainly possible, but even lessons learned from the research she does will be incredibly important.”
The goal of the fellowship is to spark visionary ideas. And visionary ideas, exploring new ways to use wearable technology, are exactly what brought Rice to Ohio State and Kiourti’s lab for her PhD research.
“One thing I was looking for when I was picking grad schools were more interesting and innovative applications, and a mix of different disciplines,” Rice says. “Working with Asimina at this intersection of electromagnetics and medical technology is really fascinating, building a path forward in that way.”
Rice’s project builds on previous research in Kiourti’s lab, in which antennas transmit toward the body instead of away from it. Typically, wearables pull data from you to another source — say, an app on your phone. These antennas are also “biomatched” to the human body, meaning they are made from unique materials with similar electrical properties to human tissue, allowing the device to sense tissue properties more effectively.
And while this particular device will be geared toward zero gravity, Kiourti says this application of antennas radiating toward the body to gain information could one day be used for cancer detection, tumor classification and core temperature imaging to ensure safer operations.
The NASA project not only illustrates Kiourti’s vision to see wearable technology play a key role in health outcomes but also her passion for mentoring.
“Working with students, mentoring them, seeing them mature and mentor on their own is a big component to me,” she says. “To see students grow along the process of what we do is super exciting.
“I love the innovation and the flexibility of academic research. You come up with an idea, you don’t know if it works but you have this vision, this concept in your head. You take paper and pencil and start drawing and begin all the small steps that build on each other to make something incredible happen. That’s what’s exciting to me.”