Wearable technology offers insight into infant development

Credit: Beckmann Institute of Advanced Science and Technology

What’s small, clever, and playful all over the place?

It’s not a mystery, but a list of traits envisioned by Nancy McElwain, professor of human development and family studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where I searched for a data-collection tool compatible with the youngest research participants.

McElwain’s research focuses on the processes of attachment, or the relationships that children form with their parents in childhood, and how these relationships shape social, emotional, and physiological development.

One of the challenges for McElwain is collecting information from children too young to self-report or play a file smart device on their own. This prompted her to reach out to Mark Hasegawa Johnson and Rumit Roy Choudhury, professors of electrical and computer engineering.

Working together, the trio of researchers developed LittleBeats, a small wearable device that collects data via an electrocardiogram, sound and motion sensors. LittleBeats, hidden in the front pocket of a specially designed infant-sized shirt, enables remote data collection from the comfort of the participant’s home. Data from the device helps researchers assess infant stress regulation and physiological responses in the context of their daily interactions with parents and siblings.

“Our ultimate goal is to give back to the community and use LittleBeats as an intervention and prevention tool. On a larger scale, it can be used as a way for parents to get a detailed view of their children’s day-to-day interactions,” McElwain said.

LittleBeats’ data collection is still in its infancy, but researchers are optimistic about the device’s future applications.

“If parents and caregivers can monitor a child’s development with this device, early identification of a motor or language delay, a behavioral disorder, or a sleep disturbance may be possible,” McLean said.

The ability to collect information using multiple measurements is a critical component of the project.

“We want to use ECG, sound, and motion sensors together to provide better and more accurate detection of a child’s feelings or behavior than any single sensor can do on its own,” McLean said.

Her main measure of interest is respiratory arrhythmia, which measures the “rest and digest” branch of the nervous system and is tracked by electrocardiogram. Audio capture allows researchers to record parental interactions with children without video interference; Pairing the audio with the electrocardiogram provides insight into stress regulation. Electrical and computer engineering researchers’ interest in motion data has led to the inclusion of a motion sensor.

LittleBeats is a testament to the innovation achieved through multidisciplinary work at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology. Child development researchers make suggestions for metrics to track, and engineers design algorithms to meet those needs. New developed algorithms made it possible to collect richer data and process faster. Collaboration allows HDFS students to learn the basics of machine learning and gives ECE students insight into the real-world application of their algorithms.

Engaging in interdisciplinary research requires some interdisciplinary navigation.

“We speak different scientific languages, so we have to find ways to bridge that divide,” McElwain said. “Our research can be very fragmented, but at the same time we help each other generate ideas. Those questions that are within disciplines inspire new discussions and new ideas that benefit everyone.”

Participation in this interdisciplinary effort benefits not only researchers, but the 150+ families to date. The LittleBeats team collaborated with researchers and clinicians at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Arkansas Children’s Research Institute, Oregon Health & Science University, UNC-Chapel Hill, and Cincinnati Children’s Hospital to recruit families from across the country.

“We are attuned to the need for a diverse sample, socially, economically, racially, ethnically and geographically. It is critical for child development research to study samples that reflect the entire population,” McKelwin said.

Feedback from participants has been very positive, according to project manager Jordan Bodway. Parents are eager to get involved, finding the device easy to set up and fun to use.

“Many of the families we recruited are from the local community, so they appreciate the research and what is being done at the university,” said Bodeway.

The research team is also developing a visualization tool to help parents interpret their children’s data.

“LittleBeats families have been very generous with their time, and we are excited to have their data returned to them in a format that allows them to easily see the patterns of behavior their children are going through at home. We want LittleBeats to have a positive experience,” said McLaughlin.

This insightful and innovative research would not have been possible without the use of Beckmann’s gold-standard data-collection equipment.

“I really appreciate that Beckman is where we feel at home doing it multidisciplinary researchwhere we feel supported, and where we have benefited greatly from a very collaborative environment.”

How attachment to mother and child affects adolescent brain and behavior

more information:
The project Location: littlebeats.hdfs.illinois.edu/

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