Kathryn Clark’s epilepsy had been under control for years. Then, in November 2014, she was hit by a– the kind that spreads to the entire brain and leaves the victim convulsing on the floor.
“I haven’t had too many of those in my life, and that one was out of the blue,” Kathryn says (pictured above). She was worried about looking after her children, then aged 2 and 4, if the seizures were coming back.
Her husband Ryan, an, had an idea: program a smartwatch to detect movement characteristic of a seizure and text him a warning.
“I realized it should be possible, and took a week off work to throw this thing together,” Ryan says. Now the pair have created software that does just that, and made it freely available online.
Devices that detect seizures are not new – researchers have testedthat can detect seizures via electrical currents travelling across the skin – but Ryan and Kathryn’s detection system has an advantage. Ryan chose to work with the $100 , one of the cheapest smartwatches on the market.
This means the program, called, is instantly available to any of the who might be living with epilepsy, with no need to buy anything else.
The Pebble has an accelerometer that can detect the wearer’s motion, so Ryan wrote code to spot rhythmic movements in the frequency range seen during tonic-clonic seizures. He figured out what that range was by watchingand mimicking their motions while wearing the watch. He then compared the results against scientific literature.
If the watch detects motions that go above a certain threshold, it sends an alarm to the wearer’s phone. The wearer has 15 seconds to turn the alarm off if they are not having a seizure.
“There definitely are false positives,” Ryan says. “Brushing your teeth is almost exactly the same frequency and strength as having a seizure, it will definitely pick that up.”
He warns that it can also miss real seizures if the arm wearing the watch gets trapped under the person’s body, for instance. “It’s not foolproof,” says Ryan. “It shouldn’t be relied upon, but makes it more likely that a seizure will be detected.”
If the alarm is not cancelled, the app automatically sends a text to predetermined numbers – in Kathryn’s case, Ryan and her dad. The text includes the wearer’s last known GPS location so the recipient can come and help.
The app also has a “panic” button. If the wearer feels a seizure coming on, they can press it to warn their contacts. It is the only function Kathryn has had to use in the past year – although thankfully she hasn’t had any more tonic-clonic seizures.
“Things are under control now, but we know that they might not always be,” she says. She has shared the software with contacts at thein Vancouver, where she used to work as a counsellor for people with epilepsy. “Hopefully they’ve had a chance to tell some other neurology specialists about it. We just want to get the word out and let people know it’s available.”
The Clarks say the watch has given them an increased sense of security and peace of mind.
“Most people with epilepsy and other chronic conditions will tell you it’s always a struggle to balance freedom with safety, independence with responsibility,” Kathryn says. “Once you get over the shock that you have seizures, you do have to get down to, OK, how am I going to live with them? This has been the answer in a lot of ways for us.”
(Image: Ryan Clark)
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