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Stanford University School of Medicine

Stanford study shows wearable sensors can tell when you’re getting sick

When Mike Snyder, PhD, settled in for a long flight to Norway on a family vacation last year, he noticed changes in his heart rate and blood oxygen levels.

Like a lot of people, Snyder, professor and chair of genetics at Stanford's medical school, wears an activity monitor that measures his heart rate. Unlike most people, though, he wears eight different biosensors — monitoring his heart rate, activity, skin temperature and more. And he also collects all the data from these sensors for later analysis.

That day, two of his eight sensors were telling him something was wrong.

Snyder is one of dozens of people enrolled in a study to find out what intensive biomedical data collection — from a combination of wearable devices and lab tests — can tell us about our health and the onset of disease. He is also the team leader on the study here.

Anyone who goes to the doctor, gets their blood pressure and temperature recorded. But unless you have hypertension or a fever, nobody pays much attention to the results. Snyder’s work looks at what happens when we take a closer look and monitor ourselves continuously. What does the data looks like? What are the challenges of trying to understand it? What kinds of new ideas may emerge?

Some of the first surprising and intriguing answers appear in a paper in the journal PLOS Biology, and our news release describes the diverse findings of the study.

Some highlights: Heart rate and skin temperature correlated with infections and inflammation throughout the body. Daily steps taken, combined with the difference between daytime heart rate and nighttime heart rate, signaled developing insulin resistance.

And the changes in Snyder’s heart rate and skin temperature on that flight to Norway? He knew his numbers were abnormal, but why? As I explain in the release:

Two weeks earlier, he’d been helping his brother build a fence in rural Massachusetts, so his biggest concern was that he might have been bitten by a tick and infected with Lyme disease. In Norway, Snyder persuaded a doctor to give him a prescription for doxycycline, an antibiotic known to combat Lyme disease. Two subsequent tests confirmed that Snyder had been infected with the Lyme bacterium.

What impressed Snyder most, though, was the fact that his wearable biosensors picked up the infection before he even knew he was sick. 'Wearables helped make the proper diagnosis,' he said.

Putting up that fence, Snyder couldn’t have known that a satisfying day of physical work with his brother would also contribute so significantly to his ongoing scientific discoveries.

Previously: Stanford launches iPhone app to study heart health, Wireless stick-on patch could make continuous health monitoring more flexible and practical and "Omics" profiling coming soon to a doctor's office near you?
Photo by Steve Fisch

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