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For Healthier Aging, Turn Up the Volume

Maintaining mobility as we age is a key goal, since the “use it or lose it” rule seems to hold.  As long as we can stay active our systems continue to work better and we feel better.  However, many of the chronic disorders we associate with aging have a neurological component that often has a major negative impact on our mobility.  This makes healthcare costs skyrocket and dramatically decreases human productivity.     

To address these challenges, companies like Afferent Corporation, in Providence, Rhode Island, are pioneering development of a new class of neurotherapeutic devices to treat such disorders.  Its core technology enhances the function of mechanoreceptor cells involved in sensory perception as a means of restoring brain function associated with impaired balance, strokes, and diabetic neuropathy (deadening of peripheral nerves often leading to limb amputation).  James J. Collins, a professor of biomedical engineering at Boston University, led the original research based on a nerve-stimulating technology called “stochastic resonance”.  Stochastic resonance sends non-detectable electrical or mechanical “noise” to the central nervous system.  The Chief Technical Officer of the company, Jason Harry, often refers to the process as “turning up the volume” of sensory input. 

An initial application of the technology was delivered through the soles of the feet while standing on vibrating silicone insoles.  The theory is that stochastic resonance may help to minimize problems the elderly have with poor balance, which leads to frequent debilitating falls.  Comparisons of the ability to stand steady, which decreases with age, showed that using the technology removed the normally large difference between a group of 20-year-old subjects and a group of 75-year-old subjects.   The potential importance of this finding is seen in Center for Disease Control data, indicating that in 2005 almost 2 million people over 65 years of age ended up in an emergency room due to fall-related injuries and more than 400,000 had to be hospitalized at a cost of about $20 billion.  Decreases in falls while standing and walking would have major impacts.

Similar technology is being tested on subjects with diabetic neuropathy who have only minimal sensation in their feet and on stroke subjects with minimally functional limbs.  In both cases, positive results have been seen and additional controlled clinical trials are planned as a step toward further product development and commercialization.  Increasing limb sensation in diabetics is found to help minimize skin ulcerations and similar problems.  The common weakness or partial paralysis commonly seen with strokes has shown improvements, which are rare after such events.  The public health data for diabetics indicates that about 8 million people may eventually experience neuropathy of the sort that is responsive to this technology.  The American Stroke Association claims that more than 700,000 people per year have a stroke leading to long-term disability with costs estimated at $45 billion for care and lost productivity.  David A. Brown, assistant professor of Physical Therapy and Human Movement Science at The Fienberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University indicates that it is now well-understood that sensory information (stimulation) is one of the key drivers of the recovery process.  This effect is believed to be not due to the damaged portion of the brain healing post-stroke, but to a new part of the brain learning to control the limb.  The new connections formed in the brain are based on enhanced sensory signals from the limb stimulating this process — “the louder the volume, the greater the effect,” as Jason Harry likes to say.  Researchers are working hard to develop products based on the stochastic resonance technology to improve our chances for healthy aging and we “baby boomers” should watch for them with special personal interest.

Vibrating Silicone Insoles

Seems these insoles might also be applicable for people (young and old alike) faced with the problem of "plantar faciitis" that afflicts the soles of the feet, which must be constantly stimulated to get blood circulating to avoid painful walking. When will this product be in the market? Will it be affordable?

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