By Robin Erb
DETROIT — Technology originally designed for the U.S. military now has a second use: helping those with tremors eat and live better.
A high-tech spoon — fitted with a tiny computer and sensors such as those in a camera or cellphone — softens the effect of essential tremors by sensing their direction and strength and moving the device in the opposite direction.
"In some ways, it seems too simple to be true," said Dr. Kelvin Chou, a University of Michigan neurologist and essential tremors specialist whose patients helped test the device.
For essential tremor patients, simple daily activities — eating, applying makeup — can be impossible.
"Not being able to feed yourself or groom yourself — that takes a big emotional toll," said Anupam Pathak, CEO of Lift Labs, a California-based start-up company that makes the device.
The idea ignited after Pathak began as a doctorate student in engineering at the University of Michigan. He had been working on research to help stabilize military equipment for U.S. soldiers in the middle of combat, and over time, he began wondering whether the technology could help those whose hands tremble.
With funding from the National Institutes of Health, Pathak developed the LiftWare, a device that assesses movements thousands of times in a single second.
To test it, he turned to the university, where doctors at the U-M Health System treat 400 to 500 patients a year for hand shakes caused by essential tremor, a common movement disorder. It is estimated that 1 in 20 people worldwide have a degree of essential tremor.
Chou said the spoon worked surprisingly well for the 15 adults who tested it.
All had moderate essential tremor.
He said the results were "amazing," especially considering how socially limiting essential tremors can be. Patients often stop eating in front of others and no longer go out with friends and loved ones.
In the worst cases, they cannot feed themselves at all. Just 10% are candidates for surgery that treats the tremors.
"One of the worst things about essential tremor is that people feel like they have to be alone. This changes things for people," Chou said.
The device may not work for everyone with tremors. With many patients with Parkinson's disease, for example, the tremor improves when they are performing a task such as eating. However, those whose tremors interfere with eating stand to benefit from the device, Chou said.
The spoon and its advanced microelectronic technologies come with a hefty price tag: $295. Lift Labs and the International Essential Tremor Foundation have established a campaign to give the spoons to those with limited income.
Chou and Pathak said the same technology could be fitted with pieces to help those with tremors execute other daily activities, such as applying makeup or using hand tools. A fork and a soup spoon attachment will be available in the coming months, Pathak said.