A New Smartwatch That Detects Seizures and Emotional Stress

Empatica's Embrace smartwatch can monitor and understand your behavior. (Empatica )

Like many health conscious Americans, Dr. Rosalind Picard wears a fitness tracker on her wrist. But hers doesn’t just track steps, it has an extra sensor that gathers medical information.

Picard hopes the sensor, which measures the skin’s electrical response, will soon save lives by predicting major health events such as epileptic seizures.  As a leading engineer at the MIT Media Lab, Dr. Picard researches the autonomic nervous system, which includes heart rate, respiration, digestion, perspiration, and the fight-or-flight response.

Picard’s smartwatch, developed by her company Empatica, records electrodermal (EDA) activity and wirelessly sends the data to a smartphone. The technology isn’t new, versions of the sensors have been used in polygraph tests for decades.

But new, highly sensitive  sensor technology can now provide a continuous reading on our emotional states, linking the tiniest increase in sweating to psychological or physiological arousal.

Picard calls this idea of using tech to help bridge the gap between human emotions and technology, ‘Affective Computing’ and she has been driving this field of study for several years.

She takes her research personally, and wears her wristband sensor  every day. It shows when she’s stressed, and when she’s calm, and yields surprising insights. When Picard  compares her data with other researchers wearing the sensor, she notes that her tolerance of stress is higher than average. “We find individual differences in stress points,” Picard explained.  “I tend to thrive on thrill-seeking high stress situations, but other people would go nuts with what I do.”

Using Sensors for Autism

The insight Picard has gleaned from electrodermal sensors go far beyond mood tracking. For people with autism, Picard’s lab has shown that the  sensors can reveal emotional episodes that they might not be able to express verbally. “A person with autism gets overloaded and they shut down and retreat into their own little world,” she said.

Picard explained that autistic responses to difficult situations can seem non-intuitive and sudden to observers and might involve head banging, other self-injury, or catatonic behavior. “In some instances, they are doing this to release a neurotransmitter that can quell the pain.” Picard explains, “if an autistic kid is lying on the floor motionless, but his EDA sensor reads that his signals are through the roof, caregivers can make better decisions about how to respond.”

Predicting Seizures

Electrodermal  sensors also have important implications for youth with epilepsy, which Picard discovered when one of her students placed the sensors  on his brother.  Twenty minutes before his brother had a Grand Mal seizure, the sensors registered off-the-charts skin conductance.

After further study, Picard and her collaborators were able to show in peer-reviewed scientific publications that EDA sensors could provide reliable warning for seizures in some patients.

During very serious and possibly life-threatening seizures, respiration can be affected and even stopped. Known as sudden unexpected death in epilepsy (SUDEP), this is a risk especially for children, affecting 3 in 100 epileptics, often during sleep. “That risk is a lot higher than other causes of death. SUDEP kills more people than house fires, more than AIDS, and it is very stigmatized,” said Picard. “But we believe it is preventable in most cases.”

Last fall, Picard’s company, Empatica, launched a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo  and raised over $700,000. The smartwatch, called Embrace, combines  technology from fitness trackers with EDA and heart rate sensors to measure stress, epileptic seizures, activity and sleep. The company’s challenge now is to complete the FDA approval process and finish production on the first models that will go to backers of the campaign, many of whom are epileptics.

A New Smartwatch That Detects Seizures and Emotional Stress 23 October,2016Jessica Carew Kraft

  • James McDougal

    Might this sensor be useful in alerting type 1 diabetics regarding high or low blood sugar levels?

  • Andrew Alden

    I saw Dr. Picard speak about this technology on Tuesday, and she really
    won over the audience of techies. To answer James McDougal, the sensors
    measure skin conductance and the wristband is really aimed at
    epileptics, where the benefit is clear-cut – although she noted that the FDA hasn’t yet approved the device for that purpose. There are people working on blood-sugar sensors.

  • Tara Love

    I would love to try this with my 12 year-old non verbal autistic daughter. She has several of the above mentioned health issues with little to no way for me (her only parent and caregiver) to know exactly whats going on. Something like this may help STOP the guessing game and start yeilding some real concrete evidence of issues that I may not be aware of and how to address them…
    I hope the FDA Approves it soon..how long after would it be available on the open market?

    • drmom5

      Shouldn’t even be the FDA’s business. It’s safe and effective, right?

  • Lisa Ann Embery-Donaghy

    Wish I could get this,take part in this study.my son has absent seizures. Plus asd adhd.plus is under loads of anxiety. This would be fantastic to show data.lisa embery donaghy

  • Rhonda Treesh

    How about an animal version of this watch!? My dog just starting having seizures for no known reason. If this “watch” could predict seizures in people, why not animals !

    • drmom5

      Right after vaccination?

      • Rhonda Treesh

        No. Before vaccinations. 🙁

        • drmom5

          I’m so sorry.

  • Julie Noorda Nicholas

    I am so excited for this to get into production! I have 3 children with Autism and have epilepsy myself. This sounds like it would be a great benefit to our family! I also have a brother whose seizures are much worse than mine, who would also love this I am sure! I love the way that technology can be used for good in helping those with these disabilities! Kudos to you, and good luck! I will continue to follow this site!

  • Susan Demetropoulos

    Where can I sign my son up for a test ride?

  • Cathy Schoonover

    I would like to find out more about this watch. We have been to doctor after doctor and can’t find out what is causing my sister’s seizures. They come on so suddenly this watch would help knowing before hand when they are coming. Would help her out so much. Or even be a test subject.

  • Debbie Podany

    This is awesome. My poor son wants to go to a post secondary school. We tried this past week made it two days before I got the call to come get. His stress and anxiety was off the chart which then triggered his seizures. It’s bad enough to be autistic but to have the seizures too. What’s to become of my son and others like him. I think of this daily.

  • leeioki

    Would wear it in a heartbeat. Having a new seizures added to others, with massive medical journey….

  • Nicole Cundiff

    How can one be part of the study? Is it only for kids?

  • jackie

    Would be very interested in this product for my daughter who has Lennox Gastaut Syndrome. This could let her staff know when she is going to have a drop attack or grand mal, hopefully this item will come to Canada soon…….

  • cynthia ruiz

    where do i sign up as well i would like one for sure amazing i would loved to have my son Peter Ruiz as a tester as well over 500 seizures later emotional stress omg,this would help parents as well as the individual going although the drama of the struggle of there trauma, this is most differently
    the future.

  • maggie

    I have a very special young man in my life, he is my heart. David has seizures it’s a part of his everyday life and I need to learn more about this. I want to sign my son up for this test run.

  • Melanie Reis

    This is AMAZING technology!!! I’d like to at a minimum get my son involved in the testing – he is both epileptic and autistic and deals with major anxiety issues as well. We bought another fitness watch which we can tap into via the web and gives us insight into his stress levels via the heart rate monitoring, however your work is right on the mark!!!

    I may go purchase the embrace devices just to get rolling immediately – THANK YOU.

    I also am experiencing ongoing neurological issues after encephalitis 4 years ago – this would help track my sleep issues and maybe lend some insights into my “absences” and cluster headaches. Data is always helpful!

  • Rosalind Picard

    Hi – I just realized there’s a line in the original story above saying we detect “before the seizure.” I want to be clear that, while we thought that timing of “before” was true in our first recording, when we have gold-standard precision timing, it is not generally true. When we use gold-standard hospital Video-EEG recordings labeled by expert epileptologists (which is what we have published) then in most cases the measure on the wrist increases *after* the seizure activity in the brain begins.

    Detecting AFTER the seizure starts is still VERY IMPORTANT: Most deaths in epilepsy are not from drowning, falling/injury, etc, but are from SUDEP, which can shut down breathing many minutes after it appears that the seizure has ended. People who have grand mal or complex partial seizures not controlled by meds should either not be left alone, or should have some kind of alert for somebody to check on them when they seize. Experts believe that most SUDEP could be prevented, provided somebody attends to the patient.

    Of course the right set of actions “to attend to a patient” should be discussed with each patient’s doctor, as sometimes medication should be administered or the patient given emergency treatment. But in some cases, simply shaking the patient gently or talking to them can prompt them to start breathing again, and this could be life-saving.

    Thank you for helping spread the word about the importance of using an alerting device – and for telling people about Embrace. We think SUDEP (which kills more people every year than house fires) is largely preventable with the use of alerting devices.

    Rosalind Picard, Professor at MIT and Co-founder and Chief Scientist of Empatica

  • katie

    My son has 7 different types of seizures, 20 or more a day. He is 2 and has had them for the past two years. I would like to help test/ try this out with him.

    • drmom5

      Does he have Dravets or Lennox-Gastaut? Cannibus has helped those kids.
      Methylfolate supplements have helped my son’s seizures and mood tremendously (his are due to metabolic acidosis) but I still worry about those nighttime ones and SUDEP.

  • kristina Martin

    I would like to take part as well, my son has Lennox-Gastaut syndrome, he has had a brain surgery when he was two to decrease seizure activity and at 4 he had a vagas nerve stimulater placed. I still notice several absance seizures throughout the week especially when he is stressed at school, and this would help me and his teachers to better care for him in those situations. I would to volunteer to put my son under your study, it is a long shot, but very well worth it, if it gives the better way for us to understand and better understand how and when he is undergoing a seizure, so that we may be able to get him the help he needs in the right amount of time….. you can contact by phone 501-655-2630 or through email at kmmomof8@yahoo.com, he does everything through Arkansas Childrens hospital. Please respond back an let me know how I can get my hands on one of these for my son. PLEASE HELP, I JUST WANT HIM TO BE ABLE TO GET FURTHER IN LIFE THEN WHAT EVERYONE THINKS HE CAN.. THANK YOU, Kristina Martin mother of an severe epileptic

    • drmom5

      For L-G Syndrome, those kids have done very well with cannibus oil. Dravet’s syndrome too.

  • drmom5

    Now all it has to do is beep me in my room when he has a seizure while he’s asleep!

  • drmom5

    Very soon, we will have wristbands with accelerometers which call our family when we fall.

  • Ingrid Hernandez

    Wow….Wow….Wow….This is an incredibly unique product that can aid in saving lives. My son is 9 years old and suffers from Tourette Syndrome, epilepsy, anxiety,ADHD , Chiari Malformation, Austism among other things. This will make a world of difference. Does this device help with Hypokalemic Periodic Paralysis? I suffer from it and seizures. I would love for my son to be part of the study to better comprehend his behavior. Amazing!!

  • Nancy Silverman

    would if work for Cataplexy

  • Sandra Garcia

    My daughter who is 29 yrs old now had a brain tumor removed at the age of 4. She has seizure activity all the time but with the help of a Vagal Nerve Stimulator she is able to live a productive life. This device would allow her to be able to predict when she is becoming too stressed and be an even earlier warning sign that she is about to have a seizure and be able to get herself to a safe place especially when driving. Also to prepare herself when she is at work or caring for her 15 month old son. Please let me know more about this! garcias1777@gmail.com

  • If there is a trial we would like to get on it, Son is autisic and has epilepsy

  • Deb Micolichek

    I would absolutely love to try this out with my 16 year old son. He has intractable epilepsy (Complex Partial w/ Secondary Generalized). He has no signs at all to know that a seizure may come. This would be an awesome device to try and see if it gives proper warning….life could be a little different for him as maybe he could go back to doing some of the things he loved if he’d have warning to stop and get to safety.

  • slehman805

    I would love to sign up for one of these as well. I’m afraid a bunch more alarms are going to go off when I hear the price but keeping my fingers crossed.

  • Candace Elise Rodriguez

    I need one. Where are these at?

  • sheilaa

    i have had epilepsy for 43 years…never thought that i would see this..wicked..thank you for your progess..how can i sign up for a test study? very interested..thank you..

  • Michele

    How do you become part of the study? My daughter has special needs and has complex partial, focal and Monic clonic.

  • Anna

    I would love to try this my seizures are unpredictable and I wish I knew I knew when they would occur that would be very nice to know if there is any chance I can get this I would love to know

  • Victor Norris

    Any notification would be an asset!

  • Jessica Leigh Walsh

    I would firstly like to thanks you for all your hard research into epilepsy and how much it effects us and our families. I would love one of those smart watches please as I’ve had epilepsy for 17 years i have uncontrolled grand mal seizures and suffer from arthritis in my back,shoulders and necks. I live in fear with my epilepsy everyday and night.

  • dawn

    This would be fantastic for my 17 yr old daughter. She has absent seizures and Grand Mal seizure. These seizures have altered her teenage life. She is scared to leave our home at times. From spending the night with a friend to going to school. This has led to depression and anxiety. Also low grades. She begins to feel symptoms of a seizure and typically in 24hrs has a grand mal. She has absent seizures daily. At times during test taking she is in the middle of a test then moments later her test has been collected and she doesn’t recall. This device would help her to become more confident in her daily life. We would be grateful to help get this on the market. Other only for our daughter but may others that suffer.

  • Jeanna Harvey Brooks

    Where do i get one

  • Tonya Moulton

    I too would be interested in more information on this! I have a son with ASD as well as epilepsy and this would allow us so much peace of mind. Looking forward to learning more about this product!

  • Alexandra Ouellette-barnes

    I would be interested in this for my thirteen year old daughter who is epileptic and is also non verbal with autistic like tendencies. It would be so interesting to see if this would help to determine how her moods and emotions are connected to seizure activity….she also has insomnia…..it sounds like there are things that could be monitored with regards to that as well. Looking forward to this coming on the market. Please keep me posted if possible. 🙂

  • Briwref

    I am getting one through the Epilepsy Foundation, but delivery has been postponed until October

  • Diana Pastora Carson

    Count me in! My brother experiences autism and seizures. Anxiety to the point of self-injury at times. He cannot communicate effectively what he’s feeling in his body, especially during times of high anxiety. Is there a list for signing up? If I could get him to keep it on, this device would be invaluable to him, his staff, and our family.

  • ellie eckersley

    I would be very interested as my son is epileptic but also very sensitive and seems to absorb stress off other people , I also had epileptic seizures which I grew out of at age 9 , my mum also and she grew out of it too, my 2 year old is undergoing tests but I already know she has absence seizures and took just two granny mal seizures both of which were taking exactly one hour after vaccination where can I find more information please .

  • Anita macias

    My grandson gets seizures will the insurance companies cover the cost to get one

    • AB

      Generally of course not.

  • Anita macias

    How and what can I do to get one for my grandson

  • Keisha

    I would love to know more about this I jus asked my child neruo nurse about something that will let me know about his siezures and they said there was nothin so I’m doing my research

  • Fabian Sophia

    Hello, my name is Sophia I have just been told I am having seizures; my kind of seizures is so different from all the others I have heard about. Three years ago I went to my doctor with dizziness, weakness, and unstable walking at times. I had an MRI done, they found nothing, so I was put on Prozac which I refused to take, after three years I went to another doctor who did an EEG right after one of those dizzy spells and found out that I was having seizures. He told me I had them at first on the left side of my front lob now it is on both sides. He started me out on Dilantin 300mg, but it was making me very sick, so now I’m starting on divalproex er 500mg. If anyone out there is having dizzy spells, make your doctor listen to you, have an EEG done within 24hours, But after all procedure done. I was still an epileptic patient, who have completely lose hope. As the problem is always embarrassing and disturbing. While surfing the internet one fateful day, I saw woman’s comment about how medicine has complete cure her only son and prompted me into going through the testimony to know the detail and that was when I learned about Doctor Ethan.
    I contacted him with some info and he ordered a dispatch down to my country through delivery service, I took his medicine for couple of months, though hesitantly, considering the fact that I have done a lot of procedure.
    Over a year now, I have not show any symptoms of seizure and I believe I am cure if you want to contact him at this email doctor.ethan@yahoo.com


Jessica Carew Kraft

Jessica Carew Kraft is an independent print journalist and graphic artist in San Francisco, specializing in health, culture, education and sustainability. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, theAtlantic.com, The Christian Science Monitor, San Francisco Chronicle, Grist Magazine, Yoga Journal, ARTNews and other publications. Originally from the Midwest, Jessica trained as an anthropologist at Swarthmore College and Yale University, and then worked as an art critic; a graphic designer; and an adjunct professor at colleges in New York and San Francisco.

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