Swimming toward an 'internet of health'?

October 02, 2019

In recent years, the seemingly inevitable "internet of things" has attracted considerable attention: the idea that in the future, everything in the physical world -- machines, objects, people -- will be connected to the internet. Drawing on lessons learned from studies on a variety of marine animals outfitted with sensors, researchers in a new perspective article in ACS Sensors describe how an "internet of health" could revolutionize human medicine.

Imagine a world where you could present your doctor with an entire year's worth of data on your eating habits, heart rate, sleep-wake cycles, and biomarkers of health, all obtained non-obtrusively from wearable sensors attached to skin or clothing or contained in cell phones. These data could be correlated with information about the environment, such as airborne pollutants and geographical location, to evaluate risks for illnesses or perhaps even prevent them. Michael Strano and colleagues have decades of collective experience with biologging -- tagging marine animals with sensors to gain ecological insights, ranging from feeding behaviors to migration. In this perspective article, they share insights from these experiences that could someday help scientists develop an "internet of health."

Surprisingly, a sensor attached to an organism can potentially uncover new information about seemingly disconnected behaviors, the researchers say. For example, a jaw-motion sensor attached to a sea turtle's mouth can provide data on the animal's specific anatomy, but it might also reveal detailed information on the type of food and the duration of feeding, as well as how the turtle captured the prey and ate it. In a study referenced in this article, the researchers used sensors to track the motions of 23 species of marine animals for a decade. The animals' movements revealed migratory patterns, which the researchers correlated with data on seawater temperature and photosynthetic and human activities to predict how habitats could shift because of climate change. The team emphasizes that each sensor forms a partial but incomplete picture of an organism's physical state, necessitating the use of multiple sensors. As with animal studies, a challenge for human medicine will be developing comfortable sensors that don't impact people's behaviors, the researchers say.
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The authors do not acknowledge funding sources for this paper.

The study is available as an ACS Editor's Choice article here.

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