Smartwatches can track COVID-19 symptoms, study finds
If a COVID-19 infection develops, a wearable device may eventually be able to clue you in. A study at the University of Michigan found that a smartwatch can monitor how symptoms progress.
The study evaluated the effects of COVID-19 with various factors derived from heart-rate data. This method also could be employed to detect other diseases, such as influenza and the common cold, at home or when medical resources are limited, such as during a pandemic or in developing countries.
Tracking students and medical interns across the country, the University of Michigan researchers found that new signals embedded in heart rate indicated when individuals were infected with COVID-19 and how ill they became.
For instance, they discovered that individuals with COVID-19 experienced an increase in heart rate per step after the onset of their symptoms. Meanwhile, people who reported a cough as one of their COVID-19 symptoms had a much more elevated heart rate per step than those without a cough.
“We previously developed a variety of algorithms to analyze data from wearable devices. So, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, it was only natural to apply some of these algorithms to see if we can get a better understanding of disease progression,” says Caleb Mayer, a doctoral student in mathematics at the University of Michigan and a co-first author of the study.
People may not internally sense COVID-19’s direct impact on the heart, but “heart rate is a vital sign that gives a picture of overall health," says Daniel Forger, a University of Michigan professor.
Millions of people are tracking their heart rate through wearable devices. This information is already generating a tremendous amount of data for researchers to analyze, says co-author Daniel Forger, professor of mathematics and research professor of computational medicine and bioinformatics at the University of Michigan.
“Heart rate is affected by many different physiological signals,” Forger explains. “For instance, if your lungs aren’t functioning properly, your heart may need to beat faster to meet metabolic demands. Your heart rate has a natural daily rhythm governed by internal biological clocks.” While people may not internally sense COVID-19’s direct impact on the heart, he adds that “heart rate is a vital sign that gives a picture of overall health.”
Among the total of 2,164 participants who enrolled in the student study, 72 undergraduate and graduate students contracted COVID-19, providing wearable data from 50 days before symptom onset to 14 days after. The researchers also analyzed this type of data for 43 medical interns from the Intern Health Study by the Michigan Neuroscience Institute and 29 individuals (who are not affiliated with the university) from the publicly available dataset.
Participants could wear the device on either wrist. They also documented their COVID-19 symptoms, such as fever, shortness of breath, cough, runny nose, vomiting, diarrhea, body aches, loss of taste, loss of smell, and sore throat.
Experts not involved in the study found the research to be productive. “This work is pioneering and reveals exciting new insights into the many important ways that we can derive clinically significant information about disease progression from consumer-grade wearable devices,” says Lisa A. Marsch, director of the Center for Technology and Behavioral Health and a professor in the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth College. “Heart-rate data are among the highest-quality data that can be obtained via wearables.”
Beyond the heart, she adds, “Wearable devices are providing novel insights into individuals’ physiology and behavior in many health domains.” In particular, “this study beautifully illustrates how digital-health methodologies can markedly enhance our understanding of differences in individuals’ experience with disease and health.”
Previous studies had demonstrated that COVID-19 affects cardiovascular functions. Capitalizing on this knowledge, the University of Michigan endeavor took “a giant step forward,” says Gisele Oda, a researcher at the Institute of Biosciences at the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil and an expert in chronobiology—the science of biological rhythms. She commends the researchers for developing a complex algorithm that “could extract useful information beyond the established knowledge that heart rate increases and becomes more irregular in COVID patients.”
Wearable devices open the possibility of obtaining large-scale, long, continuous, and real-time heart-rate data on people performing everyday activities or while sleeping. “Importantly, the conceptual basis of this algorithm put circadian rhythms at the center stage,” Oda says, referring to the physical, mental, and behavioral changes that follow a 24-hour cycle. “What we knew before was often based on short-time heart rate measured at any time of day,” she adds, while noting that heart rate varies between day and night and also changes with activity.
However, without comparison to a control group of people having the common flu, it is difficult to determine if the heart-rate signals are unique to COVID-19 or also occur with other illnesses, says John Torous, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School who has researched wearable devices. In addition, he points to recent data showing that many wearables, which work by beaming light through the skin, may be less accurate in people with darker skin due to variations in light absorption.
While the results sound interesting, they lack the level of conclusive evidence that would be needed to transform how physicians care for patients. “But it is a good step in learning more about what these wearables can tell us,” says Torous, who is also director of digital psychiatry at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, a Harvard affiliate, in Boston. A follow-up step would entail replicating the results in a different pool of people to “help us realize the full value of this work.”
It is important to note that this research was conducted in university settings during the early phases of the pandemic, with remote learning in full swing amid strict isolation and quarantine mandates in effect. The findings demonstrate that physiological monitoring can be performed using consumer-grade wearable sensors, allowing research to continue without in-person contact, says Sung Won Choi, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Michigan who is principal investigator of the student study.
“The worldwide COVID-19 pandemic interrupted a lot of activities that relied on face-to-face interactions, including clinical research,” Choi says. “Mobile technology proved to be tremendously beneficial during that time, because it allowed us to collect detailed physiological data from research participants remotely over an entire semester.” In fact, the researchers did not have any in-person contact with the students involved in the study. “Everything was done virtually," Choi explains. "Importantly, their willingness to participate in research and share data during this historical time, combined with the capacity of secure cloud storage and novel mathematical analytics, enabled our research teams to identify unique patterns in heart-rate data associated with COVID-19.”
Tom Oxley is building what he calls a “natural highway into the brain” that lets people use their minds to control their phones and computers. The device, called the Stentrode, could improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of people living with spinal cord paralysis, ALS and other neurodegenerative diseases.
Leaps.org talked with Dr. Oxley for today’s podcast. A fascinating thing about the Stentrode is that it works very differently from other “brain computer interfaces” you may be familiar with, like Elon Musk’s Neuralink. Some BCIs are implanted by surgeons directly into a person’s brain, but the Stentrode is much less invasive. Dr. Oxley’s company, Synchron, opts for a “natural” approach, using stents in blood vessels to access the brain. This offers some major advantages to the handful of people who’ve already started to use the Stentrode.
The audio of this episode improves about 10 minutes in. (There was a minor headset issue early on, but everything is audible throughout.) Dr. Oxley’s work creates game-changing opportunities for patients desperate for new options. His take on where we're headed with BCIs is must listening for anyone who cares about the future of health and technology.
In our conversation, Dr. Oxley talks about “Bluetooth brain”; the critical role of AI in the present and future of BCIs; how BCIs compare to voice command technology; regulatory frameworks for revolutionary technologies; specific people with paralysis who’ve been able to regain some independence thanks to the Stentrode; what it means to be a neurointerventionist; how to scale BCIs for more people to use them; the risks of BCIs malfunctioning; organic implants; and how BCIs help us understand the brain, among other topics.
Dr. Oxley received his PhD in neuro engineering from the University of Melbourne in Australia. He is the founding CEO of Synchron and an associate professor and the head of the vascular bionics laboratory at the University of Melbourne. He’s also a clinical instructor in the Deepartment of Neurosurgery at Mount Sinai Hospital. Dr. Oxley has completed more than 1,600 endovascular neurosurgical procedures on patients, including people with aneurysms and strokes, and has authored over 100 peer reviewed articles.
Synchron website - https://synchron.com/
Assessment of Safety of a Fully Implanted Endovascular Brain-Computer Interface for Severe Paralysis in 4 Patients (paper co-authored by Tom Oxley) - https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamaneurology/art...
More research related to Synchron's work - https://synchron.com/research
Tom Oxley on LinkedIn - https://www.linkedin.com/in/tomoxl
Tom Oxley on Twitter - https://twitter.com/tomoxl?lang=en
Tom Oxley website - https://tomoxl.com/
Novel brain implant helps paralyzed woman speak using digital avatar - https://engineering.berkeley.edu/news/2023/08/novel-brain-implant-helps-paralyzed-woman-speak-using-a-digital-avatar/
Edward Chang lab - https://changlab.ucsf.edu/
BCIs convert brain activity into text at 62 words per minute - https://med.stanford.edu/neurosurgery/news/2023/he...
Leaps.org: The Mind-Blowing Promise of Neural Implants - https://leaps.org/the-mind-blowing-promise-of-neural-implants/
For generations, the Indigenous Tjupan people of Australia enjoyed the sweet treat of honey made by honeypot ants. As a favorite pastime, entire families would go searching for the underground colonies, first spotting a worker ant and then tracing it to its home. The ants, which belong to the species called Camponotus inflatus, usually build their subterranean homes near the mulga trees, Acacia aneura. Having traced an ant to its tree, it would be the women who carefully dug a pit next to a colony, cautious not to destroy the entire structure. Once the ant chambers were exposed, the women would harvest a small amount to avoid devastating the colony’s stocks—and the family would share the treat.
The Tjupan people also knew that the honey had antimicrobial properties. “You could use it for a sore throat,” says Danny Ulrich, a member of the Tjupan nation. “You could also use it topically, on cuts and things like that.”
These hunts have become rarer, as many of the Tjupan people have moved away and, up until now, the exact antimicrobial properties of the ant honey remained unknown. But recently, scientists Andrew Dong and Kenya Fernandes from the University of Sydney, joined Ulrich, who runs the Honeypot Ants tours in Kalgoorlie, a city in Western Australia, on a honey-gathering expedition. Afterwards, they ran a series of experiments analyzing the honey’s antimicrobial activity—and confirmed that the Indigenous wisdom was true. The honey was effective against Staphylococcus aureus, a common pathogen responsible for sore throats, skin infections like boils and sores, and also sepsis, which can result in death. Moreover, the honey also worked against two species of fungi, Cryptococcus and Aspergillus, which can be pathogenic to humans, especially those with suppressed immune systems.
In the era of growing antibiotic resistance and the rising threat of pathogenic fungi, these findings may help scientists identify and make new antimicrobial compounds. “Natural products have been honed over thousands and millions of years by nature and evolution,” says Fernandes. “And some of them have complex and intricate properties that make them really important as potential new antibiotics. “
In an era of growing resistance to antibiotics and new threats of fungi infections, the latest findings about honeypot ants are helping scientists identify new antimicrobial drugs.
Bee honey is also known for its antimicrobial properties, but bees produce it very differently than the ants. Bees collect nectar from flowers, which they regurgitate at the hive and pack into the hexagonal honeycombs they build for storage. As they do so, they also add into the mix an enzyme called glucose oxidase produced by their glands. The enzyme converts atmospheric oxygen into hydrogen peroxide, a reactive molecule that destroys bacteria and acts as a natural preservative. After the bees pack the honey into the honeycombs, they fan it with their wings to evaporate the water. Once a honeycomb is full, the bees put a beeswax cover on it, where it stays well-preserved thanks to the enzymatic action, until the bees need it.
Less is known about the chemistry of ants’ honey-making. Similarly to bees, they collect nectar. They also collect the sweet sap of the mulga tree. Additionally, they also “milk” the aphids—small sap-sucking insects that live on the tree. When ants tickle the aphids with their antennae, the latter release a sweet substance, which the former also transfer to their colonies. That’s where the honey management difference becomes really pronounced. The ants don’t build any kind of structures to store their honey. Instead, they store it in themselves.
The workers feed their harvest to their fellow ants called repletes, stuffing them up to the point that their swollen bellies outgrow the ants themselves, looking like amber-colored honeypots—hence the name. Because of their size, repletes don’t move, but hang down from the chamber’s ceiling, acting as living feedstocks. When food becomes scarce, they regurgitate their reserves to their colony’s brethren. It’s not clear whether the repletes die afterwards or can be restuffed again. “That's a good question,” Dong says. “After they've been stretched, they can't really return to exactly the same shape.”
These replete ants are the “treat” the Tjupan women dug for. Once they saw the round-belly ants inside the chambers, they would reach in carefully and get a few scoops of them. “You see a lot of honeypot ants just hanging on the roof of the little openings,” says Ulrich’s mother, Edie Ulrich. The women would share the ants with family members who would eat them one by one. “They're very delicate,” shares Edie Ulrich—you have to take them out carefully, so they don’t accidentally pop and become a wasted resource. “Because you’d lose all this precious honey.”
Dong stumbled upon the honeypot ants phenomenon because he was interested in Indigenous foods and went on Ulrich’s tour. He quickly became fascinated with the insects and their role in the Indigenous culture. “The honeypot ants are culturally revered by the Indigenous people,” he says. Eventually he decided to test out the honey’s medicinal qualities.
The researchers were surprised to see that even the smallest, eight percent concentration of honey was able to arrest the growth of S. aureus.
To do this, the two scientists first diluted the ant honey with water. “We used something called doubling dilutions, which means that we made 32 percent dilutions, and then we halve that to 16 percent and then we half that to eight percent,” explains Fernandes. The goal was to obtain as much results as possible with the meager honey they had. “We had very, very little of the honeypot ant honey so we wanted to maximize the spectrum of results we can get without wasting too much of the sample.”
After that, the researchers grew different microbes inside a nutrient rich broth. They added the broth to the different honey dilutions and incubated the mixes for a day or two at the temperature favorable to the germs’ growth. If the resulting solution turned turbid, it was a sign that the bugs proliferated. If it stayed clear, it meant that the honey destroyed them. The researchers were surprised to see that even the smallest, eight percent concentration of honey was able to arrest the growth of S. aureus. “It was really quite amazing,” Fernandes says. “Eight milliliters of honey in 92 milliliters of water is a really tiny amount of honey compared to the amount of water.”
Similar to bee honey, the ants’ honey exhibited some peroxide antimicrobial activity, researchers found, but given how little peroxide was in the solution, they think the honey also kills germs by a different mechanism. “When we measured, we found that [the solution] did have some hydrogen peroxide, but it didn't have as much of it as we would expect based on how active it was,” Fernandes says. “Whether this hydrogen peroxide also comes from glucose oxidase or whether it's produced by another source, we don't really know,” she adds. The research team does have some hypotheses about the identity of this other germ-killing agent. “We think it is most likely some kind of antimicrobial peptide that is actually coming from the ant itself.”
The honey also has a very strong activity against the two types of fungi, Cryptococcus and Aspergillus. Both fungi are associated with trees and decaying leaves, as well as in the soils where ants live, so the insects likely have evolved some natural defense compounds, which end up inside the honey.
It wouldn’t be the first time when modern medicines take their origin from the natural world or from the indigenous people’s knowledge. The bark of the cinchona tree native to South America contains quinine, a substance that treats malaria. The Indigenous people of the Andes used the bark to quell fever and chills for generations, and when Europeans began to fall ill with malaria in the Amazon rainforest, they learned to use that medicine from the Andean people.
The wonder drug aspirin similarly takes its origin from a bark of a tree—in this case a willow.
Even some anticancer compounds originated from nature. A chemotherapy drug called Paclitaxel, was originally extracted from the Pacific yew trees, Taxus brevifolia. The samples of the Pacific yew bark were first collected in 1962 by researchers from the United States Department of Agriculture who were looking for natural compounds that might have anti-tumor activity. In December 1992, the FDA approved Paclitaxel (brand name Taxol) for the treatment of ovarian cancer and two years later for breast cancer.
In the era when the world is struggling to find new medicines fast enough to subvert a fungal or bacterial pandemic, these discoveries can pave the way to new therapeutics. “I think it's really important to listen to indigenous cultures and to take their knowledge because they have been using these sources for a really, really long time,” Fernandes says. Now we know it works, so science can elucidate the molecular mechanisms behind it, she adds. “And maybe it can even provide a lead for us to develop some kind of new treatments in the future.”
Lina Zeldovich has written about science, medicine and technology for Popular Science, Smithsonian, National Geographic, Scientific American, Reader’s Digest, the New York Times and other major national and international publications. A Columbia J-School alumna, she has won several awards for her stories, including the ASJA Crisis Coverage Award for Covid reporting, and has been a contributing editor at Nautilus Magazine. In 2021, Zeldovich released her first book, The Other Dark Matter, published by the University of Chicago Press, about the science and business of turning waste into wealth and health. You can find her on http://linazeldovich.com/ and @linazeldovich.