Hamilton, May 29, 2018 – Mini Thomas couldn’t help but wonder ‘What if…” after watching a close friend experience an epileptic seizure five years ago.
What if Mini hadn’t been there to move her friend to safety, away from the gas stove where the two women were cooking together that afternoon?
“The flames were on. She could have fallen onto the stove,” recalled Mini, an electrical and computer engineering professor.
Those ‘What if’s’ soon turned into action. Mini lost herself in learning how to detect generalized tonic clonic seizures, the type of seizure her friend experienced, in people with epilepsy.
The only way, she discovered, was at a hospital using an electroencephalogram, known more commonly as an EEG. However, the “gold standard” EEG typically only confirms seizures have happened. It’s limited in its abilities to predict or remotely monitor symptoms of oncoming episodes.
Without detection, generalized tonic clonic seizures can be deadly, particularly when no one is around to intervene like Mini did with her friend.
She also learned from her research that the muscles of people experiencing such seizures go through two motions: stiffening and jerking. With the support of her associate dean, Elizabeth Pietrantonio, Mini applied for an Applied Research and Innovation in Education (ARIE) grant and tapped into her electrical engineering background to develop prototype sensors, worn as wrist and ankle bands, that detect and record these muscle movements. An alarm is then triggered, alerting a family member or health care provider that a person is having a seizure.
“If we alert someone right away, the person experiencing seizure may get help and could be saved,” Mini said. “You’re making sure when the seizure is over, there’s help. The most difficult situation is if a person is unattended and it leads to death.”
The team working on this research includes another Mohawk College faculty member, Esteve Hassan, and a clinical partner from McMaster University/Hamilton Health Sciences, Dr. Joseph Perumpillichira. Mini’s team has also hired a Mohawk College student, Kugsang Jeong , to support the development of the application in the MEDIC lab.
Mini and her research team tested the bands on healthy volunteers, who mimicked seizure muscle movements. Mini then studied participants’ data and developed an algorithm to determine the bands were correctly predicting and detecting seizures.
Next, she tested the bands on epilepsy patients at Hamilton Health Science’s Epilepsy Monitoring Unit.
Those clinical trials proved the bands worked. EEGs confirmed it.
She presented her research at this year’s Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) international conference. Her findings will also be included in the IEEE’s research database, Xplore.
Now Mini wants to develop a prototype with additional sensors, including heart rate, to glean more data about seizure warning signs and limit the chance of false alarms with the bands.
Bigger picture, the sensors could be commercialized and turned into a product people with epilepsy could purchase and wear to stay safe all the time.
“They would get attention before or as a seizure happens, saving patients from major catastrophes or deaths, improving patient’s quality of life, and they wouldn’t necessarily need immediate medical attention.”
About Mohawk College
Mohawk College educates and serves more than 31,700 full-time, part-time and apprenticeship students at three campuses in Hamilton, Ontario. Mohawk is among the leading colleges in Canada for applied research and is ranked number one for student and graduate satisfaction among colleges in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area.