New Watch Tested at MIT, Boston Children’s Hospital Can Detect, Track Seizures

The Embrace wristwatch, with sensors visible, in red.
The Embrace wristwatch, with sensors visible, in red. –Courtesy of Empatica

Move over, Apple Watch: The Embrace wristwatch — developed by Empatica, Inc., a company co-founded by MIT Media Lab professor Dr. Rosalind Picard — is one smart watch.

Able to detect seizures in people suffering from epilepsy, the Bluetooth-enabled watch can alert a smartphone app or even a “companion’’ watch worn by a parent, spouse, roommate, or anyone who will be close to the wearer when seizures are likely to occur.

Its creators hope it will prevent cases of sudden, unexpected death from epilepsy (SUDEP) and also help doctors time doses of medication for epileptic patients.

Epilepsy is a serious condition characterized by recurrent seizures that affects 2.3 million adults and nearly half a million children in the United States. The CDC estimates that 1 in 26 people will be diagnosed with epilepsy at some point in their lifetime. Though many times its cause cannot be determined, epilepsy can be caused by brain injuries and tumors, strokes, or infections of the central nervous system.

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Embrace is moving towards commercial development with the help of an IndieGoGo page where, by making early purchases of the watch, people can help fund the development of an improved prototype and its submission to the FDA.

The watch, which also tracks general stress levels, sleep habits, and other behaviors, is “slated to be available next summer for $199,’’ according to The MIT Technology Review.

Technology designed to help people with epilepsy, and to prevent SUDEP, is nothing new: Sleep activity monitors, anti-suffocation pillows, surgical implants monitoring brain activity, at-home EEG scans, and even other motion-detecting watches are available.

The original Embrace-like device was developed by Picard at MIT in 2007 to measure stress levels in autistic children. Stress levels spiked when wearers had seizures, leading to new studies with Boston Children’s Hospital. That research was published in peer-reviewed journals, patents were issued, and now the sensor technology is used in research at more than 135 institutions, including BCH.

Embrace contains two types of sensors: there’s a motion detector (it’s also used in some iPhones) that picks up on the repetitive tilting and shaking movements associated with a seizure. Another sensor (also used in lie detectors) can sense minute amounts of sweat, a sign that the wearer’s sympathetic immune system has been activated. When these two indicators reach a certain level, Embrace sends an alert noting that a seizure has happened.

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A case study conducted at Boston Children’s Hospital in 2012 showed that an earlier version of the device was nearly as effective at detecting grand mal seizures as electroencephalograms (EEGs), which detect abnormalities in electrical brain activity. While the device has since been upgraded, that earlier version detected 15 of 16 grand mal seizures in seven of the 80 children involved in the study, but also triggered 102 false alarms, according to VectorBlog.

Correction: an earlier version of this story said the device was developed by MIT and Boston Children’s Hospital. While those institutions were involved in testing the device, Empatica is the developer of the Embrace watch.