Consider a 75-year-old we’ll call Gordon. One day in late February 2020, he had a myocardial infarction—a heart attack—and was rushed to the hospital. Fortunately, Gordon recovered. But he wasn’t able to get back to his previous level of mobility.

What if Gordon had had some warning of what was to come?

It turns out that in the six days preceding his heart attack, Gordon’s walking was gradually slowing and his breathing rate was increasing. The changes were so imperceptible that no one noticed, not even Gordon. But a small device sitting in his bedroom did. Part of a purely observational study at the time, the machine, the size of a router, was continuously emitting wireless signals (about a thousand times weaker than your WiFi).

Those signals, ricocheting off the walls and floors of Gordon’s apartment, also bounced off him. The tiniest of Gordon’s bodily signals—the pulsing of his veins, the inhale-exhale movements of his chest, the shuffling of his feet—affected these waves, enabling changes to be detected. Think of it as low-power radar.

For this study, the data weren’t processed in real time, so no intervention could be made. But machine-learning algorithms were ultimately able to disentangle that complex electromagnetic flurry and reveal Gordon’s slowing gait and increased respiration. In other words, this device saw signs of a possible health issue days in advance, at a time when it could have been monitored or treated.

“Once the medical system has more experience with this type of information,” Dina Katabi SM ’99, PhD ’03 says, “it will open up a window into monitoring people’s health in their natural living environment.”

Katabi, the inaugural Thuan and Nicole Pham Professor at the Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing, explains that the touchless sensors she and her team are developing represent a move from wearables to “invisibles.” Patients consent to having the wireless emitters installed in their homes, but the machines disappear into the background, which means the data depict someone’s actual condition. (Brief exams at the doctor’s office tend not to accurately reflect patients’ day-to-day health experiences.) In addition, there’s no need to interface with the device to charge it, enter personal information, or attach it to your body.

These invisibles can register someone’s breathing, movements, sleep, and heartbeats through walls and around corners—even from another room. The technology can tell if someone is scratching their eczema, going to the medicine cabinet to take their pills on time, or using their inhaler or insulin autoinjector properly. To see it in action—for example, the moment when someone enters REM sleep and starts to dream registered at a distance without attached sensors—is astonishing. Indeed, when Katabi, who is also a principal investigator in the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab, did a live demo at one TED talk, the audience broke into applause.

She says two major advances have helped make her work possible. The first is powerful radio technology that can sense faint electromagnetic signals. The second is the revolution in the computer field known as deep learning, which has allowed Katabi and her team to build computer models and signal processing algorithms that can interpret and translate the wireless data into meaningful information about what’s taking place in the home.

Tying together math, medicine

Katabi grew up in Damascus, Syria, in a family flush with physicians. Her grandfather was among the first doctors to graduate medical school in the country. Her father is a practicing cardiologist, and many of her cousins are doctors. Katabi did a year of medical school at Damascus University, “but at the time, I just loved math much more.” She wound up majoring in engineering, a decision that frustrated her family.

It was a hard choice to make, but now Katabi’s current work in wireless signaling has enabled her to embrace math and medicine at once. She’s using engineering and computer code to gain a more precise understanding of our physical bodies.

Two thirds of health care costs in the United States are connected to chronic conditions, such as Parkinson’s disease, heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. These problems develop gradually. For instance, before someone is brought to the hospital with congestive heart failure, fluid steadily accumulates in the lungs and breathing grows increasingly shallow.

With continuous, remote physiological monitoring, patients can get treated earlier and more precisely, with targeted pharmacological and therapeutic interventions.

In other words, says Katabi, wireless monitoring has the potential to revolutionize health care.

Benefits of home health care

One incarnation of this revolution is “bringing health into the home,” according to Katabi. Continuously assessing people’s basic vitals and medical conditions where they live has several potential benefits. First, health care costs plummet as the number of in-person appointments, tests, and procedures drops. Second, clinical trials can speed up as it becomes easier to more closely and accurately track subjects as they test experimental treatments and medications. Third, in situations where a disease is highly contagious (think of Covid-19), this technology allows physicians to closely monitor patients with zero contact.

Finally, the quality of specialized care improves. Take Parkinson’s, a disease of the central nervous system that causes tremors and difficulties walking and balancing. Some 40% of patients don’t have access to specialists by virtue of where they live. Collecting medical information at home and transmitting it to a Parkinson’s specialist would dramatically enhance their quality of care. Indeed, Katabi has already collected data that shows how the gait of patients with Parkinson’s improves after they take their medication and gradually declines as it wears off. Physicians can use this sort of information to offer individuals precision medicine—personalized, optimized dosing.

Katabi is currently developing tools to enable even more complex monitoring, weaving together breathing, sleep, and behavioral data to diagnose depression or anxiety and forecast flares in Crohn’s disease.

“Every one of us is very different,” she says. Noting that the work promises to improve medicine, Katabi smiles and suggests that she has continued in her family business after all.

5 comments

  1. Brenda Bell

    On the plus side, this technology looks like it will not need significant patient training (one barrier to information gathering and analysis). On the other… how will it work in a multiperson household? What happens when the patient (still in their 40s or 50s) works outside the home? (What will they have to carry with them and worry about plugging in, getting lost or stolen, interfering with secure workplace networks?) Also, most workplace environments, and many family and social environments, make precise timing of oral and topical medications a bit of a fraught thing – will the end result of this be a constant nannying of the patient by the nurse hired by their health insurance to “proactively coach” the patient and force them to whatever therapeutic regimen that insurance company is pushing/will cover?

  2. David Harold Chester

    This wonderful idea and claim seems to be very advanced compared to the present state the world is getting into. Might it be more sensible to use the necessary funding for this great proposal, for something a bit more basic? Are the lives of a relatively few persons living in a relatively civilized country (like the US), worth more than the relief of poverty, drought, famine, disease, fire and terrorism in some of the poorest places on the surface of our disintegrating planet? The ethics of medical treatment and sustainance of life is a subject that should not be ignored even if we have at hand the most effectice technical device for prolonging the lives of a relatively few wealthy Americans.

  3. David Harold Chester

    And on the subject of what is the best way to help the world make good progress, we badly need to assess the effcet that monoploization of useful sites of land has on the poverty of its landless neighbours.

    In my opinion this matter is far more serious and has led to corruption on a huge level, compared to most other dangers like the spreading of disease. Without applying semi-religious socialism claims of feeding the poor, the fact is that land ownership and its mis-use or non-use denies most workers and citizens the opportunities for providing a fair and just means for their livelyhood. Government is too political for most places to accept that it should be doing is what is best for everyone and not for a relatively small proportion of the policy-holders currently in power. Even with democracy providing for regular election of leaders, our present forms of government provide a very poor means for this kind of fair benefit since at best it alternates the policies every few years and gives uneven bountiful rewards.

    In Spectrum we should be considering how our world is gradually disintegrating and what can be done about it, and this is a very difficult thing to prperly answer because most proposals for influencing the political leaders, are due to their positions depending on support being given from a powerful but largely ignorant minority. Indeed it appears that withour present greatly improved means for communication and rhetoric, that the nature of the human species is to dominate and exploit rather than try to help the rest of the less well-aware and empoverised population. In short we are ll going to hell on a First Class ticket.

    It is my contention that much if not all of this situation could be rectified were our knowledge of our social system of macroeconomics were better understood by governing parties and if with this better knowledge a fair and just method of providing equality of opportunity were introduced for all. This claim has several branches that involve the better use of our natural resources and the proper sharing of the bounty that their access allows for those who are allowed to own them. Actually this aspect of our lives on the surface of this planet is so basic that it should cover all other less just situations and were it in place would eliminate the cause of many corrupting forces.

  4. David Harold Chester

    So how can we better learn about our social system? Although I qualified with a master’s in engineering, I did study some economics on the side. During my professional carrier in aeronautics, I began to realize that the under-graduate texts on economics were most unsatisfactory, so after many years of searching for a better explanation and not finding one, I chose to write my own.

    The necessary research was spread over more than 20 years and eventually I was able to write a much better and more scientific logical explanation about of what our social system really comprises and how it actually works. I realized that it was high time this past pseudo-science of the humanists that was fully of pluralism, confusion, opposing schools of thought and general mayhem, at last became also a much more exacting and logical subject–one suitable for true scientific study and its eventual application for better government. I should add that there is no political nor religious bias in this work. It provides the means for exploring any chosen policy and does not promote any one, although there is an example which shows how tax reforms can affect our national progress.

    The results of this long investigative research was my 310-page book “Consequential Macroeconomics–Rationalizing About How Our Social System Works”, which was published in 2015. Since I still hold the copyright, I also gladly and happily made it available (for free when you write to me at chesterdh@hotmail.com ), as an e-book, too.

    As a new true science, my idealism for the spread and better application of this useful kind of knowledge and better understanding for good government, was one subsequent development. This later became available along with two short working papers that are closely related to the model (or diagram of our social system), that is an intrinsic part of it.

    I believe that the readers of Spectrum and those involved with the economics department at MIT, would greatly benefit from reading about this better, more logical, seamless and more simply expressed knowledge that I wish to freely share.

  5. We could use this now in Correctional Medicine. This could be a game changer and save lives. I have repeatedly reached out to Emerald after seeing this in a online course I took from MIT. No one has ever responded to me. It’s a shame because many of the people in jails are the most disadvantaged among us and you can argue whether they should be there at all, but the fact of the matter is they are, and we could use newer technologies to make it safer.

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