Medical Tech

Can smartwatch detect epileptic seizures?

It looks like a watch, it tells time like a watch but the creators of Embrace say it may actually save the lives of those suffering from epileptic seizures


It looks like a watch and tells time like a watch, but the creators of Embrace say their new invention is so much more than that. The device comes from Empatica, a computing company focused on human data analytics and that prides itself on its ability to monitor epileptic seizures. Empatica's latest feat was stumbled upon almost completely by accident.

Dr. Rosalind Picard, the company's chief scientist, was studying stress levels in non-verbal autistic children by measuring electrodermal activity (EDA). New York University Langone Medical Center's Dr. Daniel Friedman said EDA is the "flow if ions through the sweat glands," which is innervated by the sympathetic nervous system— the part of the body that regulates breathing, heart rate and other subconscious functions that can indicate stress.

Dr. Picard's technology used tiny electrodes positioned on a wristband to track EDA. During their trials, Dr. Picard noticed especially high activity from one of the participants and realized the device was inadvertently monitoring a seizure. This discovery led to Embrace, a sleek and stylish watch that can serve as a fitness tracker, monitor day-to-day stress level and detect seizures.

Measuring EDA makes Embrace unique compared to similar devices that solely depend on motion to indicate a seizure. This can be problematic for two reasons: Some patients may have a seizure without convulsions, and other cases may yield false-positives because they misinterpret normal, everyday movement as that of a seizure.  

Embrace is tied to two apps for smartphones. One is called Empatica Mate, and its main function is to track the body's relationship to stress. Users can also program the app so that Embrace will vibrate when they're approaching a certain stress level, allowing them to react appropriately. Empatica Mate also monitors stress levels throughout the day, as well as different activities, helping the wearer understand his or her day-to-day life.

The second app is called Empatica Alert, and the co-founders of Embrace say it has the potential to save lives. When stress levels spike to a certain level, the watch begins to vibrate on the patient. If they are unable to turn the vibration off, an alert is sent to up to five predetermined caretakers. This quick response may be the key to preventing sudden unexpected death in epilepsy (SUDEP), Embrace's co-founders say.

Empatica CEO Matteo Lai says the benefits from Embrace may reach beyond simple detection. Because Embrace tracks day-to-day activity, the data retrieved may help researchers further understand the factors that can be attributed to seizures.

This tracking of the frequency of seizures a patient has may also help doctors with their treatment. Dr. Friedman points to studies that show a third to half of people who suffer from epilepsy don’t remember any of their seizures, which can make treating these patients difficult.

Embrace has not been yet been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Before trying any new medical devices, be sure to consult with your doctor.   

For more information about Embrace's features and pricing click here.