NASA has been looking for a device to detect balance problems in astronauts, and one of the proposals by an MIT graduate student may turn into a machine that could go commercial. Using smart algorithms to analyze pressure under the foot, we envision this technology potentially going clinical one day, to rid the world of clumsy people.
Lieberman originally developed the technology to help NASA monitor balance problems in astronauts returning from space.
Zero gravity environments wreak havoc on the vestibular system, one of three body systems that control balance. (The others are vision and sensory receptors called proprioceptors, which tell you where your body parts are in relation to other body parts and the outside world.)
“The change in gravity really screws with their sense of balance. They’re falling all over the place,” says Lieberman, who is a Hertz Fellow and also receives funding from the National Science Foundation and Department of Defense.
The effect usually lasts about 10 days, but NASA tests astronauts’ balance for 16 days after their return. Astronauts go into a phone-booth-like box, where they undergo a series of balance tests such as platform shifts and wall shifts.
While at NASA, Lieberman developed a new system for gathering data and an algorithm to analyze the data.
“We’ve developed the first algorithm that is really capable of not just looking at the pressure distribution of proprioceptors on the feet but also analyzing what that’s saying,” he says.
Lieberman soon realized that the technology could reach a wider audience than just astronauts. His own grandmother suffered a bad fall several years ago, and he theorized that a balance diagnostic could help doctors catch balance problems before such a fall occurs.
“You have a gradual progression of loss of balance, osteoporosis, and other factors that can lead to the fall,” Lieberman says.
The iShoe insole would measure and analyze the pressure distribution of the patient’s foot and report back to their doctor. The device could also be outfitted with an alarm that would alert family members when a fall has occurred.
Lieberman and his colleagues are now testing the device in about 60 people, hoping to generate data that will help them create a model to predict the risk of a fall.