Every week at Massachusetts General Hospital, Sydney Cash, MD, PhD, sees patients whose lives are profoundly impacted by epilepsy. Afflicted by short but seemingly unpredictable seizures, many with epilepsy can no longer drive, work or go to school.
Dr. Cash is determined to change this. In his Mass General lab, he and his team are working on a prototype for specially designed eyeglasses that would collect data about epileptic seizures. Such data could help predict when a patient’s next seizure will occur. That could transform the lives of people with epilepsy now and for many years to come.
The eyeglass frames involved are made of black plastic. With no electronic equipment affixed yet, one could mistake them for a dollar-store toy.
Eyeglasses Against Epilepsy
But these glasses are far more sophisticated than they appear. And they are exactly what Dr. Cash, a neurologist who also provides clinical care to patients, wants for his early-stage research. His Mass General lab creates low-cost prototypes using a device called a 3D printer to test with patients. He believes early-stage patient input will lead to better final products and decrease research and manufacturing costs.
Researchers in Dr. Cash’s lab create low-cost prototypes to test in patients. They believe their process will decrease research and manufacturing costs.
Researchers in Dr. Cash’s lab are studying the brain. They want to better understand epilepsy, human cognition and sleep and dreams. They are also working to discover how our brain can interface with computers. Dr. Cash, who is well-respected in his field, was a lead author on a 2011 study that, for the first time, recorded the activity of hundreds of single cells in the human brain during a seizure.
In 2013, Dr. Cash was named the Elizabeth Riley and Daniel Smith MGH Research Scholar. Often named in honor of their donors, the MGH Research Scholar awards support researchers who go after bold ideas that will change medical care. But such awards can’t cover all aspects of a researcher’s work. As federal funding for such research continues to decline, scientists like Dr. Cash have had to rely more heavily on philanthropy to pursue the full potential of their ideas.
Prototypes From 3D Printers
Some of the Cash lab’s research involves more expensive, under-the-skin devices that require a patient to have surgery. Other projects focus on noninvasive low-cost equipment, such as eyeglasses and iPhone apps. Both are important.
The 3D printer the team is using to create their eyeglass prototype for epilepsy patients looks like a typical office printer, except that it is hooked up to a small robot inside a plastic box. The 3D printer melts plastic, dripping it through a hose and pushing it out in the form of tiny dots. The dots build up structures, following computer programs the team creates. The eyeglasses take about an hour to manufacture in the lab.
Hobbyists, manufacturers and artists have embraced 3D printing, which is just now moving into academics and medical research. When Dr. Cash’s group began printing prototypes about a year ago, it was one of the first groups to do so at Mass General. The 3D printers are relatively expensive devices, costing $10,000 and more. Dr. Cash hopes philanthropic gifts will help him purchase additional 3D printers and hire another engineer so he can design and produce more prototypes.
“Part of our philosophy is that it is hard to design the perfect device, but we are designing the device to give patients and doctors the information they need now.”
Dr. Cash’s research group decided to design equipment to address epilepsy because the condition places such strain on patients and families.
Gathering Seizure Data
A device such as Dr. Cash’s eyeglasses could collect important data on a patient’s brain activity automatically and, because it is external, might be more appealing to patients with epilepsy “We can really get an accurate counting of seizures without having to put the patient through surgery,” he explains.
Having more data on seizures from epilepsy, such as brain activity, body temperature and head motion collected by the eyeglasses or a smart phone app, could help doctors and patients better use monthly appointments to adjust medications and potentially identify warning signs of the next seizure. Such devices might be useful for collecting data on patients with other brain disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease.
The team plans to gather input from patients on their eyeglasses design. Patients often relate essential user opinions such as whether the device is comfortable and easy to use.
As the research continues, patients may benefit from the devices years before they are available on the commercial market. “Part of our philosophy is that it is hard to design the perfect device, but we are designing the device to give patients and doctors the information they need now,” Dr. Cash says.
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