Hopes for new drugs that would slow or stop the inexorable decline of Alzheimer’s patients have repeatedly foundered in recent years. In one example, Eli Lilly had to halt the trial of a drug designed to prevent the production of toxic proteins in the brain because patients’ cognition actually worsened while they were taking it.
Scientists are now looking to the computer industry for alternative ways to help patients. One approach is centered on a small camera called SenseCam, worn like a necklace, that snaps photographs automatically throughout the day. The idea is to use the images not to replace memory but to stimulate it. Each photograph can serve as a cue, like Marcel Proust’s madeleine, tapping into the web of remembrances that collectively defines a person’s identity.
SenseCam, developed by Microsoft and now marketed by a company called Vicon, uses a fish-eye lens to capture a wide-angle view. At regular intervals—say, every 30 seconds—a new image gets stored in the one-gigabyte solid-state memory. When the wearer moves from one room to another, a sensor that picks up the change in light triggers SenseCam to take a new photograph. Further, if a person walks by, an infrared sensor detects the body heat and signals that it is time for another photo. The result is a thumbnail chronology of the minutiae of the wearer’s daily life. Later, patients or their caregivers pipe this electronic thumbnail record into a PC to display the images either individually or in chronological sequence.
Dozens of groups are now working on pilot tests of the device for memory impairments. The studies remain anecdotal but are still compelling. Steve Hodges of Microsoft Research Cambridge remembers an Alzheimer’s patient who described a day trip with his spouse in Spain while wearing SenseCam, which produced images that the man could then “study.” The patient, though, wondered aloud how the couple had arrived at their destination. His wife then interjected that he had taken the device off on the train because he was embarrassed to be sporting a funny-looking gizmo. Reviewing the pictures may be a form of brain calisthenics for enhancing the mental process known as autobiographical memory, recalling the time and place of past events. The ability to engage in this type of mental time travel is just what Alzheimer’s obliterates.
Some people are skeptical about the device. “We have found that older individuals, particularly those with memory impairment, are often averse to technology,” says Paul Aisen, a physician and researcher at the University of California, San Diego, who has assisted with the design of Alzheimer’s drug trials. If the device works (and it is too early to tell if it does), SenseCam would merely slow deterioration. A delay of cognitive decline for only a few years could yield a major public health benefit by letting patients hold on to vestiges of memory. A picture might be worth more than 1,000 milligrams.
This article was originally published with the title Photographic Memory.