Beastie Boy John Berry died of frontal lobe dementia – but what is it?

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Jan Oyebode, University of Bradford

John Berry, a founder member of the Beastie Boys, has died of dementia at the age of 52. Berry’s father told Rolling Stone magazine that his son died from frontal lobe dementia, a rare form of dementia more properly referred to as fronto-temporal dementia.

Symptoms of fronto-temporal dementia usually begin in late middle age. Because the disease is not very well known, people with fronto-temporal dementia often have delays in receiving a diagnosis and may find the services they need are not available.

A tricky term

The terms used for this dementia are confusing. The changes in the brain are referred to as “fronto-temporal lobar degeneration”. These do not initially have any effect on people’s behaviour. Once signs and symptoms show up, it is possible to diagnose the condition as one of the “fronto-temporal dementias”.

When the frontal lobes – the parts of the brain lying immediately behind the forehead – are mainly affected, there are changes in behaviour or personality, resulting in “behavioural variant fronto-temporal dementia”. When the temporal lobes – parts of the brain near the temples – are mainly affected, dementia shows up through changes in language, of which there are two types: semantic dementia and progressive non-fluent aphasia. Whichever type of fronto-temporal dementia people have, they do not come to the doctor complaining of the sort of problems with memory loss that most of us think of as being signs of dementia.

We don’t know the specific symptoms that John Berry had as each case of fronto-temporal dementia is different, but about four to 15 people in every 100,000 have fronto-temporal dementias – and there are some common symptoms.

Losing the supervisor

There is huge variation in how fronto-temporal dementia progresses. But over time, it usually affects more and more aspects of thinking and functioning. It is a condition that shortens life, with people living about three to ten years after diagnosis.

So what happens during the earlier stages of behavioural variant fronto-temporal dementia – the type that is sited in the frontal lobes? One way of thinking of this area of the brain is to imagine it as the supervisor of complex activities and social behaviour. When the supervisor starts to do its job poorly, people develop trouble with complicated tasks. They may not be able to get started, so they may seem apathetic and lacking in energy. When they get started they may get stuck in a groove.

Fronto-temporal dementia is sometimes confused with depression.
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One carer we spoke with described how his brother would drive the car late into the night until it ran out of petrol even though he knew, on one level, that he ought to stop to fill up.

Sometimes people repeat an action over and over in exactly the same way, perhaps arranging objects very precisely or following a set daily routine according to a strict timetable. As the frontal lobe overseer loosens control, people often become uninhibited. They may become blunt and tactless. They may act on appetites and urges in ways that are quite out of character: touching people, swearing profusely when irritated and eating excessive amounts of sweet foods.

A particular difficulty for friends and family is that people with this dementia lose their ability to empathise. They may no longer offer comfort if someone is in tears and may seem very self-centred.

As not many people are familiar with the condition, it is often mistaken for other more common conditions. People may put the changes down to mid-life crisis, stress at work, depression or the menopause. It is possible that the condition is often misdiagnosed.

On average, it takes four years to diagnosis after symptom onset for younger people with dementia, twice as long as for those over 65 years of age, by which time, relationships may have broken down. People with fronto-temporal dementia are often at a stage of life where they still have children – and sometimes parents – who depend on them. So this, coupled with their increasing needs for support can be very stressful for everyone. Yet a recent national survey, currently in press, found there was a lack of provision of appropriate care across most of the country.

Biomedical research is making strides in identifying many of the proteins that accumulate as plaques in the brains of the people affected. The genetic aspects which affect about one in every five to ten cases are also now understood. However, with a cure still a long way off, research into how to support and assist people to manage their day-to-day lives is also very important. In our research we have taken detailed accounts of the experiences of those affected and we will be using these to develop and test ways of helping people and their families to manage and live better with the condition.The Conversation

Jan Oyebode, Professor of Dementia Care, University of Bradford

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Frontal lobe paradox: where people have brain damage but don’t know it

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Sam Gilbert, UCL and Melanie George, Canterbury Christ Church University

Humans have big brains and our frontal lobes, just behind the forehead, are particularly huge. Injuries to this part of the brain often happen after blows to the head or a stroke. Paradoxically, some people with frontal lobe injuries can seem unaffected – until they’ve been carefully evaluated.

The frontal lobes are sometimes described as the executives of the brain, or conductors of the orchestra. Among other things, they control and organise our thinking and decision-making processes. You rely on your frontal lobes when you do things like make plans, switch from one activity to another, or resist temptation.

Some people with frontal lobe injuries seem completely normal in short one-to-one conversations, but they actually have great difficulty with everyday tasks, such as cooking, organising their paperwork or remembering to take medication. This is called the frontal lobe paradox because, even though these people seem unimpaired when assessed, they have significant difficulties in everyday life.

Without specialist expertise in acquired brain injuries, it can be almost impossible to spot frontal lobe paradox because, in many cases, people will still be able to speak normally and seem remarkably unimpaired. They may be unaware of their difficulties and deny that they need any help or support.

Insight issues

People affected by the condition are not lying when they say they don’t need help or support. Instead, they may lack knowledge of their own condition because areas of the frontal lobes that are responsible for self-monitoring and developing insight have been affected by their brain damage.

A second reason for the frontal lobe paradox is that the skills needed for an assessment interview are different from those needed in everyday life. The structure and routine of an environment, such as a rehabilitation ward, can, in effect, play the role of someone’s frontal lobes. This can mask the difficulties people experience in less structured, open-ended environments. For this reason, a person’s level of ability needs to be assessed in a situation that resembles everyday life. A seemingly simple task, such as going shopping, can reveal difficulties in people who appear unimpaired on standard tests of memory and attention, and have normal intelligence.

People with frontal lobe paradox may need help with things like cooking.
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Lack of specialist training

Neuroscientists and doctors have known about the frontal lobe paradox for at least 50 years, but it is not always understood by non-specialists. This situation can lead to people not receiving help they desperately need.

For example, in England and Wales, social workers and care managers are usually responsible for deciding whether a person has the capacity (under the Mental Capacity Act 2005) to decline support or care. These are hardworking professionals who are motivated to act in the best interests of those under their care, but many receive little or no specialist training in brain injury.

These professionals tend to base their decision about a person’s mental capacity on a short face-to-face interview. This is exactly the situation that can lead to people with frontal lobe damage being denied the care that they need.

The assessment provides the support needed for a person to sound competent and able, but only for the duration of the assessment. In one example, a woman persuaded a series of professionals that she could safely live alone after a significant brain injury. In reality, she could not make meals for herself or remember to take her lifesaving medication. Sadly, she died at home shortly afterwards.

Support needed

We don’t know exactly how common the condition is, but the frontal lobe paradox is probably found in a much higher number of people than you might first imagine. As well as those who have suffered blows to the head and strokes, it can affect people with certain infections, some forms of dementia and even poorly controlled diabetes.

It is vital that social workers and care managers are trained on brain injury to protect the interests of people with frontal lobe injuries. People with these injuries are in particular need of support, but they are often the least likely to receive it.The Conversation

Sam Gilbert, Associate Professor, Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, UCL and Melanie George, Consultant Clinical Neuropsychologist, Canterbury Christ Church University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Is there really a benefit from getting an early dementia diagnosis?

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Tim Gomersall, University of Huddersfield

The Alzheimer’s Society recently issued a call for people with symptoms such as memory loss and confusion to seek early medical help. The British charity is worried that people may be putting off getting a dementia diagnosis and not receiving the health care and support they need. As the Alzheimer’s Society’s recent blog post put it: “A lack of diagnosis is denying many people with dementia the chance of getting the best possible treatment, information and support – evidence shows the earlier on you receive these, the better your chance of living well for longer.” But is early diagnosis always a good thing?

Early diagnosis has also been a key policy aim for government. We can see this in the National Dementia Strategy, and David Cameron’s Challenge on Dementia. A few years ago, the NHS even trialled a scheme to pay GPs £55 for each dementia diagnosis made. This move was widely condemned by doctors’ groups and quietly dropped after six months. In any event, the push for earlier diagnosis continues. So what exactly are the benefits of earlier diagnosis? And who are the beneficiaries?

What works?

There are no known treatments to prevent or reverse dementia, although drugs called memantine and acetylcholinesterase inhibitors can help to relieve symptoms .

In the course of my recent fieldwork, however, I met some people with memory loss who invested hope in these treatments beyond what was possible. They believed that getting onto anticholinesterase inhibitors as soon as possible could delay further decline.

Drugs can help with symptoms.
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One of the most difficult experiences in my recent research was meeting a woman who felt she had been denied treatment by the doctors, and asked me and my colleague if we were able to prescribe them for her. We had to explain that we were not clinically qualified, and in any case, the drugs would not prevent the progression of dementia. But false hope can translate into big profits for drugs companies.

The anticholinesterase inhibitor market had an estimated value of US$4.2 billion globally in 2011, with this figure set to increase over coming years as people live longer. One recent market analysis identified early diagnosis as “a challenge [that] will affect the growth of the market over the 2013-2023 forecast period”.

Thankfully, drug treatment is not the only option for people with dementia. Anyone with suspected dementia can access a memory clinic on the NHS to seek practical support for their needs. Memory clinics typically include a range of health professionals – including occupational therapists, psychologists, specialist nurses and psychiatrists. These multidisciplinary teams can help with emotional and occupational support. They can also offer advice on adapting homes – for instance, by providing memory aids, grab rails for bathing and toileting, and extra lighting.

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) also recommends “group cognitive stimulation programmes”. Cognitive stimulation uses enjoyable activities to engage thinking and memory – for example, musical activities, reminiscence sessions, and games. A recent review suggests this approach could help to maintain cognitive abilities, particularly memory and communication.

However, the current evidence relies on a number of small trials of often quite different activities, going back to 1979. Nevertheless, in the absence of effective drug treatments, cognitive stimulation is important for many people with dementia, and continues to attract research and practice interest.

Finally, we shouldn’t underestimate the psychological importance of receiving a diagnosis. Overall, the evidence shows a mixed picture. On the one hand, people are glad to understand the cause of their symptoms, to be able to plan for the future, and access resources such as dementia support groups. However, people often worry about the stigma of dementia, and some want to avoid the emotional impact of the diagnosis.

Is earlier better?

Over the last couple of years, I’ve been involved in a project looking at people’s experiences of mild cognitive impairment. This syndrome is defined as a “boundary state” between cognitive ageing (a normal process) and dementia.

If the Alzheimer’s Society’s suggestion that dementia is being under-diagnosed holds, then people with mild cognitive impairment are an anomaly. They have sought medical advice for possible dementia symptoms which are not severe enough for a diagnosis. Might it be that more people are already seeking help earlier, as the Alzheimer’s Society hopes? It seems plausible.

After the National Dementia Strategy was launched, there was a 12% increase in dementia diagnosis rates in the UK between 2009 and 2011, and recent studies show a continued upward trend.

So, who benefits from early diagnosis? As suggested above, a number of commercial and charitable organisations stand to gain substantially. There are also some benefits that may accrue to people with dementia from an early diagnosis in terms of symptom control and cognitive stimulation. Though any potential gains are small, these can still be meaningful to the person.

The other side of this, however, is the risk of over-diagnosis and increased public health anxiety associated with such “public awareness” campaigns. For example, our recent review of mild cognitive impairment research suggests people with this diagnosis live with significant uncertainty about the cause of their problems.

These patients often continue to worry about possible dementia, and the infrastructure for supporting them is patchy at best. The ethics of diagnosing people who may have no underlying illness has also been questioned. So yes, we should be helping people with dementia to get the support they need as soon as possible. But this shouldn’t come at the cost of over-diagnosing and over-medicating people.The Conversation

Tim Gomersall, Senior Lecturer in Psychology, University of Huddersfield

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Six things you can do to reduce your risk of dementia

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Challenging and training your brain is important to prevent dementia risk.
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Helen Macpherson, Deakin University

An ageing population is leading to a growing number of people living with dementia. Dementia is an umbrella term for a group of symptoms including memory impairment, confusion, and loss of ability to carry out everyday activities.

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, and causes a progressive decline in brain health.

Dementia affects more than 425,000 Australians. It is the second-ranked cause of death overall, and the leading cause in women.

The main risk factor for dementia is older age. Around 30% of people aged over 85 live with dementia. Genetic influences also play a role in the onset of the disease, but these are stronger for rarer types of dementia such as early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.




Read more:
What causes Alzheimer’s disease? What we know, don’t know and suspect


Although we can’t change our age or genetic profile, there are nevertheless several lifestyle changes we can make that will reduce our dementia risk.

1. Engage in mentally stimulating activities

Education is an important determinant of dementia risk. Having less than ten years of formal education can increase the chances of developing dementia. People who don’t complete any secondary school have the greatest risk.

The good news is that we can still strengthen our brain at any age, through workplace achievement and leisure activities such as reading newspapers, playing card games, or learning a new language or skill.

Even playing cards can strengthen your brain.
Photo by Inês Ferreira on Unsplash

The evidence suggests that group-based training for memory and problem-solving strategies could improve long-term cognitive function. But this evidence can’t be generalised to computerised “brain training” programs. Engaging in mentally stimulating activities in a social setting may also contribute to the success of cognitive training.




Read more:
What is ‘cognitive reserve’? How we can protect our brains from memory loss and dementia


2. Maintain social contact

More frequent social contact (such as visiting friends and relatives or talking on the phone) has been linked to lower risk of dementia, while loneliness may increase it.

Greater involvement in group or community activities is associated with a lower risk. Interestingly, size of friendship group appears less relevant than having regular contact with others.

3. Manage weight and heart health

There is a strong link between heart and brain health. High blood pressure and obesity, particularly during mid-life, increase the risk of dementia. Combined, these conditions may contribute to more than 12% of dementia cases.

In an analysis of data from more than 40,000 people, those who had type 2 diabetes were up to twice as likely to develop dementia as healthy people.

Managing or reversing these conditions through the use of medication and/or diet and exercise is crucial to reducing dementia risk.

Exercise is protective for heart health and diabetes, as well as against cognitive decline.
Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash

4. Get more exercise

Physical activity has been shown to protect against cognitive decline. In data combined from more than 33,000 people, those who were highly physically active had a 38% lower risk of cognitive decline compared with those who were inactive.

Precisely how much exercise is enough to maintain cognition is still under debate. But a recent review of studies looking at the effects of taking exercise for a minimum of four weeks suggested that sessions should last at least 45 minutes and be of moderate to high intensity. This means huffing and puffing and finding it difficult to maintain a conversation.




Read more:
Could too much sitting be bad for our brains?


Australians generally don’t meet the target of 150 minutes of physical activity per week.

5. Don’t smoke

Cigarette smoking is harmful to heart health, and the chemicals found in cigarettes trigger inflammation and vascular changes in the brain. They can also trigger oxidative stress, in which chemicals called free radicals can cause damage to our cells. These processes may contribute to the development of dementia.

The good news is that smoking rates in Australia have dropped from 28% to 16% since 2001.

As dementia risk is higher in current smokers compared with past smokers and non-smokers, this provides yet another incentive to quit once and for all.

6. Seek help for depression

Around one million Australian adults are currently living with depression. In depression, some changes occur in the brain that may affect dementia risk. High levels of the stress hormone cortisol have been linked to shrinkage of brain regions that are important for memory.

High blood pressure can increase the risk of dementia.
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Vascular disease, which causes damage to blood vessels, has also been observed in both depression and dementia. Researchers suggests that long-term oxidative stress and inflammation may also contribute to both conditions.




Read more:
You’ve been diagnosed with depression, now what?


A 28-year study of more than 10,000 people found that dementia risk was only increased in those who had depression in the ten years before diagnosis. One possibility is that late-life depression can reflect an early symptom of dementia.

Other studies have shown that having depression before the age of 60 still increases dementia risk, so seeking treatment for depression is encouraged.

Other things to consider

Reducing dementia risk factors doesn’t guarantee that you will never develop dementia. But it does mean that, at a population level, fewer people will be affected. Recent estimates suggest that up to 35% of all dementia cases may be due to the risk factors outlined above.

This figure also includes management of hearing loss, although the evidence for this is less well established.

The contribution of sleep disturbances and diet to dementia risk are emerging as important, and will likely receive more consideration as the evidence base grows.

The ConversationEven though dementia may be seen as an older person’s disease, harmful processes can occur in the brain for several decades before dementia appears. This means that now is the best time to take action to reduce your risk.

Helen Macpherson, Research Fellow, Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition, Deakin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Empathetic dogs lend a helping paw

News Release
July 2018 | Heidelberg – Empathetic dogs lend a helping paw

Study shows that dogs that remain calm and show empathy during their owner’s distress help out faster

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Many dogs show empathy if their owner is in distress and will also try to help rescue them. This is according to Emily M. Sanford, formerly of Macalester College and now at Johns Hopkins University in the US. She is the lead author of a study in Springer’s journal Learning and Behavior that tested whether there is truth in the notion that dogs have a prosocial and empathetic nature. Interesting to note, the study found that dogs specially trained for visitations as therapy dogs are just as likely to help as other dogs.

In one of their experiments, Sanford and her colleagues instructed the owners of 34 dogs to either give distressed cries or to hum while sitting behind a see-through closed door. Sixteen of these dogs were registered therapy dogs. The researchers watched what the dogs did, and also measured their heart rate variability to see how they physically reacted to the situation. In another part of the experiment, the researchers examined how these same dogs gazed at their owners to measure the strength of their relationship.

Dogs that heard distress calls were no more likely to open a door than dogs that heard someone humming. However, they opened the door much faster if their owner was crying. Based on their physiological and behavioural responses, dogs who opened the door were, in fact, less stressed than they were during baseline measurements, indicating that those who could suppress their own distress were the ones who could jump into action.

The study therefore provides evidence that dogs not only feel empathy towards people, but in some cases also act on this empathy. This happens especially when they are able to suppress their own feelings of distress and can focus on those of the human involved. According to Sanford, this is similar to what is seen when children need to help others. They are only able to do so when they can suppress their own feelings of personal distress.

“It appears that adopting another’s emotional state through emotional contagion alone is not sufficient to motivate an empathetic helping response; otherwise, the most stressed dogs could have also opened the door,” explains co-author Julia Meyers-Manor of Ripon College in the US. “The extent of this empathetic response and under what conditions it can be elicited deserve further investigation, especially as it can improve our understanding of the shared evolutionary history of humans and dogs.”

Contrary to expectation, the sixteen therapy dogs in the study performed as well as the other dogs when tested on opening the door. According to Meyers-Manor this may be because registered therapy dogs, despite what people may think, do not possess traits that make them more attentive or responsive to human emotional states. She says that therapy dog certification tests involve skills based more on obedience rather than on human-animal bonding.

“It might be beneficial for therapy organizations to consider more traits important for therapeutic improvement, such as empathy, in their testing protocols,” adds Meyers-Manor. “It would also be interesting to determine whether service dogs show a different pattern of results given their extensive training in attentiveness to their human companions.”

Reference: Sanford, E.M. et al (2018). Timmy’s in the well: Empathy and prosocial helping in dogs, Learning & Behavior DOI: 10.3758/s13420-018-0332-3

Getting the temperature just right helps people with dementia stay cool

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There are currently no rules to ensure that aged-care facilities provide a comfortable indoor environment.
University of Wollongong, CC BY-SA

Federico Tartarini, University of Wollongong; Paul Cooper, University of Wollongong, and Richard Fleming, University of Wollongong

Everyone knows how bad it feels when the temperature is uncomfortably hot or cold. For most of us it doesn’t last long as we can take simple steps to get comfortable, such as putting on clothes, opening a window, or switching on a heater.

But what happens when you can’t control the temperature where you live? This problem is faced by many residents of aged care facilities, and can be particularly difficult for those living with dementia. To find out how these residents cope we recently carried out a three-year research project on the effects of indoor environment in aged care facilities in south-eastern NSW. This was part of a broader program of University of Wollongong research on the impact of indoor environment on elderly people.




Read more:
Australia’s aged care residents are very sick, yet the government doesn’t prioritise medical care


Dementia and agitation

Dementia is a collection of symptoms that affect people’s behaviour, thinking, and their ability to communicate and perform everyday tasks. Sometimes people with dementia can become agitated or distressed, which can be disturbing for other people around them. This often happens for no clear reason.

This is a big issue for the aged care sector since approximately half of all residents in aged care facilities have dementia.

While current rules governing the accreditation of aged care facilities in Australia do make reference to the need to provide ‘comfortable internal temperatures and ventilation’ there is no specific reference to what temperature ranges are considered comfortable. We set out to find whether this should be remedied and whether there is a relationship between agitation among residents living with dementia and the indoor temperatures to which they are exposed.

Dr Federico Tartarini (right) led the study that found that indoor temperatures in aged care centres have a dramatic impact on the wellbeing of residents, particularly those living with dementia. Photo: University of Wollongong.
Author supplied, CC BY

Tracking the temperature

Firstly we set up a network of sensors in six aged care facilities to monitor indoor environmental conditions, such as air temperature, humidity, air velocity and noise.

In collaboration with the care staff of one particular facility we then assessed the frequency and intensity of a range of agitated behaviours exhibited by residents living with dementia over the course of a year.

The most important finding of this study was that the frequency and intensity of agitated behaviours of residents with dementia significantly increased when they were exposed to uncomfortable air temperatures.

A statistically significant correlation was found between rates of agitation of residents and their cumulative exposure to temperatures outside their comfort zone of between 20°C and 26°C.

More generally, the data collected from the hundreds of temperature sensors across all our case study facilities over a one-year period showed that some facilities were often uncomfortably hot or cold (below 19°C in winter and over 30°C in summer) for significant periods.

Poorly designed buildings

This was attributable to many different factors including poor thermal design of the buildings and poor control of the heating and cooling systems. Interestingly, our analysis showed staff were significantly less tolerant of variations in indoor temperature than residents, probably because they were generally more active than the residents (i.e. moving around and working), and therefore had higher metabolic rates. They may have also had higher thermal comfort expectations than the residents.

Regulations can help

The evidence appears to suggest that maintaining a comfortable temperature
will reduce the behavioural and psychological symptoms of dementia.

There is a clear need for new regulations that ensure aged care facilities provide comfortable indoor environmental conditions, particularly for elderly residents, but also for the staff working in these facilities.

The aged care sector needs good indoor environmental rating tools, built on recent research evidence, to guide the design of their facilities and to audit their operations.

This type of approach has already been successfully applied in the commercial building sector, where mandatory disclosure of the real energy consumption of larger offices, for example, is required of owners wishing to sell or lease their property.




Read more:
Why is it so cold in here? Setting the office thermostat right – for both sexes


The ConversationPublicly available ratings of the actual indoor environment provided to aged care residents and staff would alert architects, managers and staff to the importance of thermal comfort and help elderly people, and their families, make a more informed choice as to the best facility in which to live.

Federico Tartarini, Associate research fellow, University of Wollongong; Paul Cooper, Senior Professor and Director of the Sustainable Buildings Research Centre (SBRC), University of Wollongong, and Richard Fleming, Professorial Fellow and Executive Director, Dementia Training Australia, University of Wollongong

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

You’re the voice: the evolution of the PainChek app

News Release
April 2018| Australia – You’re the voice: the evolution of the PainChek app

How can someone tell you they’re experiencing pain or discomfort that isn’t overtly visible, if they can’t communicate through speech? Professor Jeff Hughes from Curtin’s School of Pharmacy and Biomedical Sciences has created an app that gives a voice to people who are living with conditions that impact upon their ability to verbally communicate with others.

Elderly woman sitting down holding a phone with man sitting behind her.

One of these conditions is dementia, a neurodegenerative condition that affects the brain’s cognitive ability. It’s currently the second leading cause of death in Australia, and with the number of people living with dementia set to reach more than 536,000 by 2025, the demand for tools that help treat and manage the condition is sure to increase.

Professor Hughes’ brainchild was the world’s first smartphone app for pain assessment and monitoring, developed under the banner of Curtin start-up company ePAT (electronic Pain Assessment and Technologies Ltd) from 2014. The start-up was acquired by PainChek Ltd in 2016, and the app is now being further developed and marketed by the company as ‘PainChek’.

The app provides an accurate and reliable means for healthcare professionals and family members providing care at home to assess pain, and ultimately help to improve quality of life for those they care for.

“A significant issue among people with advanced dementia is that they no longer have the communication skills to express the level of pain they are suffering,” Hughes explains.

“The seriousness of their pain can often go unrecognised. But PainChek, a smart-device app, which utilises automation and artificial intelligence, allows for the detection and quantification of pain, based in part on a patient’s facial expressions.

PainChek uses facial recognition and a 42-point pain scale to help healthcare professionals and family members decipher the level of pain being experienced by their patient or family member, allowing them to respond accordingly. A level between zero to six represents no pain, seven to 11 mild pain, 12 to 15 moderate pain and anything above 15 means severe pain.

The tailored pain scale was developed by Hughes and his team through a tireless review of existing literature and tools, including the well-known Abbey Pain Scale, an observational pain assessment tool used nationally in the assessment of pain in people with dementia.

PainChek automates pain assessment, allowing for the continual evaluation of pain, and providing the user with access to a personalised pain chart of their patient or family member, which has been mapped over an extended timeframe. The chart is designed to be used in conjunction with other information recorded on the app, which correlates with or affects pain levels, such as medication types and dosages, activity levels and behaviour. All recorded data is backed up when the device is connected to the internet.

Since its inception in 2013, Hughes and his team have been working hard to assess and monitor the performance of the app. They’ve conducted validation studies with a range of Perth-based aged care providers, including Mercy Care, Juniper, Bethanie and Brightwater, comparing each generation of the app with the Abbey Pain Scale. Data from these trials was used to support the registration of the app as a Class 1 medical device in Australia (Therapeutics Goods Administration registration) and Europe (CE Mark) by PainChek Ltd.

Trials in aged care facilities were successful, validating the functionality and purpose of PainChek. One of the residents living with dementia was previously cared for at home by her husband. He says the app has been an invaluable tool for assessing his wife’s constant lower back pain.

“When we tested the app on my wife, we got a score of four out of 10. It was so quick and accurate. She’s in pain constantly with her lower back, and has trouble sitting down. The pain scale changes daily, and it makes me feel really comfortable that I can administer the necessary pain killers at any given time.”

In addition, the research has led to the development of a partnership with Dementia Support Australia, which comprises the two entities Dementia Behaviour Management Advisory Service and Severe Behaviour Response Teams.

“Dementia Support Australia sends consultants out to assist in the care of people living with dementia who have significant behavioural problems,” Professor Hughes says.

“What they had found from their own observations was that somewhere between 35 to 60 per cent of the people had undetected or undertreated pain, and they wanted the means to improve the assessment and documenting of that pain, and better demonstrate the effectiveness of their service.

“PainChek Ltd are effectively doing an implementation trial with them, starting here in Western Australia and then in South Australia. As part of the trial, we provide training and, after each roll out, we also offer clinical and technical support. In 2018, we’ll roll out the app to all 150 of their consultants Australia-wide.”

The development of the app hasn’t stopped there, with PainChek Ltd working on adaptations that can cater for other groups unable to communicate verbally: infants and pre-verbal children.

“Twenty per cent of children have chronic pain, with common causes being headaches and gastrointestinal or musculoskeletal conditions. And that pain can produce a whole range of issues, such as behavioural problems, poor interaction with others and avoiding school. Most people think that little kids don’t feel pain the way adults do, but we’re learning this isn’t the case,” Hughes reveals.

The intended impact of the children’s app is three-fold. One, to provide parents with surety about whether they’re taking the appropriate action. Two, to assist healthcare professionals in deciding what level of pain a child might be in and which medication to administer if applicable, and three, to encourage the investigation of the root cause of the pain to then seek the appropriate treatment.

Much like the adult app, the children’s app contains a number of items to help assess pain, however, the facial recognition element is far more in-depth due to the fact that children typically use more pain-associated facial expressions than adults. As a result, Hughes’ team has been capturing videos of children who are in pain, primarily during the immunisation process, with each video contributing to a database of coded images. With a preliminary algorithm already built, PainChek Ltd plans to have the first prototype available for trialling in 2018.

More information about the  app can be found on the PainChek website.