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Shaky hand, stable spoon: High-tech help for essential tremor

U-M doctor tests shake-canceling device invented by U-M engineering grad

spoontremor.fwImagine picking up your spoon to enjoy a nice hot bowl of soup – only to find that your hand seems to have grown a mind of its own. Instead of bringing your spoon to your lips, your hand shakes and jerks, spilling soup everywhere.

For people with the nerve condition called essential tremor, which makes their hands shake uncontrollably, that frustrating, embarrassing scenario could happen any time they try to eat. And that leads many of them to shun restaurants, parties or even family meals.

But a new handheld electronic device can help such patients overcome these tremors when they eat – and potentially other tasks that involve holding something in their shaking hands.

Developed by a University of Michigan-trained engineer, and tested by U-M essential tremor patients, it could make life easier for thousands of people with the most common movement disorder.

The U-M patients took part in a study that showed that the device improved patients’ ability to hold a spoon still enough to eat with it, and to use it to scoop up mock food and bring it to their mouths.

Called a Liftware device, it looks like an extra-large electric toothbrush base. But because of the technology inside, it can adjust rapidly to the shaking of the user’s hand, keeping a detachable spoon or other utensil steady.

In other words, it shakes the spoon in exactly the opposite way that the person’s hand shakes.

This video from the study at U-M shows what happened when patients used the device — first turned off, then turned on:

U-M neurologist Kelvin Chou, M.D., led the study along with engineers from the small startup company, Lift Labs, that makes the device. The company’s CEO, Anupam Pathak, Ph.D., graduated from the U-M College of Engineering – where he first worked on tremor-cancelling advanced microelectronic technologies for other purposes.

The concept is called ACT, or active cancellation of tremor. It relies on tiny electronic devices that work together to sense movement in different directions in real time, and then make a quick and precise counter-motion.

Kelvin Chou, M.D.

Kelvin Chou, M.D., U-M neurologist

Chou and his colleagues offer comprehensive care for essential tremor as part of the U-M Movement Disorders Center. They prescribe a range of medications to calm tremors, and evaluate which patients might benefit from advanced brain surgery to implant a device that can calm the uncontrollable nerve impulses that cause tremor.

But, he says, “only about 70 percent of patients respond to medication, and only about 10 percent qualify for surgery, which has a high and lasting success rate. People get really frustrated by tremor, and experience embarrassment that often leads to social isolation because they’re always feeling conscious not just eating but even drinking from a cup or glass.”

The study’s result show the Liftware device could help patients eat normally, he explains. “Our data show this device has very good potential to assist those who have tremor and aren’t candidates for surgery,” he says. “Compared with other devices designed to limit tremor by weighting or constraining limbs, this approach allows movement and is easier to use.”

Though the study did not include patients with hand tremors caused by other movement disorders such as Parkinson’s disease, the device may be useful to such patients too, he notes.

Says Pathak, “A key aspect of Liftware is a design with empathy. We hear of people struggling every day, and decided to apply technology in a way to directly help. We hope the final product is something people can feel proud of using, and allow them to regain independence and dignity.”

He and his colleagues are now developing other attachments for the Liftware device, and working to raise money to give devices to people with essential tremor who cannot afford the $295 price of a base unit.

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new_logos_180x1806For more than 160 years, the University of Michigan Health System has been a national leader in advanced patient care, innovative research to improve human health and comprehensive education of physicians and medical scientists. The three U-M hospitals have been recognized numerous times for excellence in patient care, including a #1 ranking in Michigan and national rankings in many specialty areas by U.S. News & World Report.