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.”
The Friday Five covers five stories in research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.
Here are the promising studies covered in this week's Friday Five:
- Kids stressing you out? They could be protecting your health.
- A new device unlocks the heart's secrets
- Super-ager gene transplants
- Surgeons could 3D print your organs before operations
- A skull cap looks into the brain like an fMRI
This article originally appeared in One Health/One Planet, a single-issue magazine that explores how climate change and other environmental shifts are making us more vulnerable to infectious diseases by land and by sea - and how scientists are working on solutions.
On a warm summer day, forests, meadows, and riverbanks should be abuzz with insects—from butterflies to beetles and bees. But bugs aren’t as abundant as they used to be, and that’s not a plus for people and the planet, scientists say. The declining numbers of insects, coupled with climate change, can have devastating effects for people in more ways than one. “Insects have been around for a very long time and can live well without humans, but humans cannot live without insects and the many services they provide to us,” says Philipp Lehmann, a researcher in the Department of Zoology at Stockholm University in Sweden. Their decline is not just bad, Lehmann adds. “It’s devastating news for humans.
”Insects and other invertebrates are the most diverse organisms on the planet. They fill most niches in terrestrial and aquatic environments and drive ecosystem functions. Many insects are also economically vital because they pollinate crops that humans depend on for food, including cereals, vegetables, fruits, and nuts. A paper published in PNAS notes that insects alone are worth more than $70 billion a year to the U.S. economy. In places where pollinators like honeybees are in decline, farmers now buy them from rearing facilities at steep prices rather than relying on “Mother Nature.”
And because many insects serve as food for other species—bats, birds and freshwater fish—they’re an integral part of the ecosystem’s food chain. “If you like to eat good food, you should thank an insect,” says Scott Hoffman Black, an ecologist and executive director of the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation in Portland, Oregon. “And if you like birds in your trees and fish in your streams, you should be concerned with insect conservation.”
Deforestation, urbanization, and agricultural spread have eaten away at large swaths of insect habitat. The increasingly poorly controlled use of insecticides, which harms unintended species, and the proliferation of invasive insect species that disrupt native ecosystems compound the problem.
“There is not a single reason why insects are in decline,” says Jessica L. Ware, associate curator in the Division of Invertebrate Zoology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and president of the Entomological Society of America. “There are over one million described insect species, occupying different niches and responding to environmental stressors in different ways.”
Jessica Ware, an entomologist at the American Museum of Natural History, is using DNA methods to monitor insects.
In addition to habitat loss fueling the decline in insect populations, the other “major drivers” Ware identified are invasive species, climate change, pollution, and fluctuating levels of nitrogen, which play a major role in the lifecycle of plants, some of which serve as insect habitants and others as their food. “The causes of world insect population declines are, unfortunately, very easy to link to human activities,” Lehmann says.
Climate change will undoubtedly make the problem worse. “As temperatures start to rise, it can essentially make it too hot for some insects to survive,” says Emily McDermott, an assistant professor in the Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology at the University of Arkansas. “Conversely in other areas, it could potentially also allow other insects to expand their ranges.”
Without Pollinators Humans Will Starve
We may not think much of our planet’s getting warmer by only one degree Celsius, but it can spell catastrophe for many insects, plants, and animals, because it’s often accompanied by less rainfall. “Changes in precipitation patterns will have cascading consequences across the tree of life,” says David Wagner, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Connecticut. Insects, in particular, are “very vulnerable” because “they’re small and susceptible to drying.”
For instance, droughts have put the monarch butterfly at risk of being unable to find nectar to “recharge its engine” as it migrates from Canada and New England to Mexico for winter, where it enters a hibernation state until it journeys back in the spring. “The monarch is an iconic and a much-loved insect,” whose migration “is imperiled by climate change,” Wagner says.
Warming and drying trends in the Western United States are perhaps having an even more severe impact on insects than in the eastern region. As a result, “we are seeing fewer individual butterflies per year,” says Matt Forister, a professor of insect ecology at the University of Nevada, Reno.
There are hundreds of butterfly species in the United States and thousands in the world. They are pollinators and can serve as good indicators of other species’ health. “Although butterflies are only one group among many important pollinators, in general we assume that what’s bad for butterflies is probably bad for other insects,” says Forister, whose research focuses on butterflies. Climate change and habitat destruction are wreaking havoc on butterflies as well as plants, leading to a further indirect effect on caterpillars and butterflies.
Different insect species have different levels of sensitivity to environmental changes. For example, one-half of the bumblebee species in the United States are showing declines, whereas the other half are not, says Christina Grozinger, a professor of entomology at the Pennsylvania State University. Some species of bumble bees are even increasing in their range, seemingly resilient to environmental changes. But other pollinators are dwindling to the point that farmers have to buy from the rearing facilities, which is the case for the California almond industry. “This is a massive cost to the farmer, which could be provided for free, in case the local habitats supported these pollinators,” Lehmann says.
For bees and other insects, climate change can harm the plants they depend on for survival or have a negative impact on the insects directly. Overly rainy and hot conditions may limit flowering in plants or reduce the ability of a pollinator to forage and feed, which then decreases their reproductive success, resulting in dwindling populations, Grozinger explains.
“Nutritional deprivation can also make pollinators more sensitive to viruses and parasites and therefore cause disease spread,” she says. “There are many ways that climate change can reduce our pollinator populations and make it more difficult to grow the many fruit, vegetable and nut crops that depend on pollinators.”
Disease-Causing Insects Can Bring More Outbreaks
While some much-needed insects are declining, certain disease-causing species may be spreading and proliferating, which is another reason for human concern. Many mosquito types spread malaria, Zika virus, West Nile virus, and a brain infection called equine encephalitis, along with other diseases as well as heartworms in dogs, says Michael Sabourin, president of the Vermont Entomological Society. An animal health specialist for the state, Sabourin conducts vector surveys that identify ticks and mosquitoes.
Scientists refer to disease-carrying insects as vector species and, while there’s a limited number of them, many of these infections can be deadly. Fleas were a well-known vector for the bubonic plague, while kissing bugs are a vector for Chagas disease, a potentially life-threatening parasitic illness in humans, dogs, and other mammals, Sabourin says.
As the planet heats up, some of the creepy crawlers are able to survive milder winters or move up north. Warmer temperatures and a shorter snow season have spawned an increasing abundance of ticks in Maine, including the blacklegged tick (Ixodes scapularis), known to transmit Lyme disease, says Sean Birkel, an assistant professor in the Climate Change Institute and Cooperative Extension at the University of Maine.
Coupled with more frequent and heavier precipitation, rising temperatures bring a longer warm season that can also lead to a longer period of mosquito activity. “While other factors may be at play, climate change affects important underlying conditions that can, in turn, facilitate the spread of vector-borne disease,” Birkel says.
For example, if mosquitoes are finding fewer of their preferred food sources, they may bite humans more. Both male and female mosquitoes feed on sugar as part of their normal behavior, but if they aren’t eating their fill, they may become more bloodthirsty. One recent paper found that sugar-deprived Anopheles gambiae females go for larger blood meals to stay in good health and lay eggs. “More blood meals equals more chances to pick up and transmit a pathogen,” McDermott says, He adds that climate change could reduce the number of available plants to feed on. And while most mosquitoes are “generalist sugar-feeders” meaning that they will likely find alternatives, losing their favorite plants can make them hungrier for blood
Similar to the effect of losing plants, mosquitoes may get turned onto people if they lose their favorite animal species. For example, some studies found that Culex pipiens mosquitoes that transmit the West Nile virus feed primarily on birds in summer. But that changes in the fall, at least in some places. Because there are fewer birds around, C. pipiens switch to mammals, including humans. And if some disease-carrying insect species proliferate or increase their ranges, that increases chances for human infection, says McDermott. “A larger concern is that climate change could increase vector population sizes, making it more likely that people or animals would be bitten by an infected insect.”
Science Can Help Bring Back the Buzz
To help friendly insects thrive and keep the foes in check, scientists need better ways of trapping, counting, and monitoring insects. It’s not an easy job, but artificial intelligence and molecular methods can help. Ware’s lab uses various environmental DNA methods to monitor freshwater habitats. Molecular technologies hold much promise. The so-called DNA barcodes, in which species are identified using a short string of their genes, can now be used to identify birds, bees, moths and other creatures, and should be used on a larger scale, says Wagner, the University of Connecticut professor. “One day, something akin to Star Trek’s tricorder will soon be on sale down at the local science store.”
Scientists are also deploying artificial intelligence, or AI, to identify insects in agricultural systems and north latitudes where there are fewer bugs, Wagner says. For instance, some automated traps already use the wingbeat frequencies of mosquitoes to distinguish the harmless ones from the disease-carriers. But new technology and software are needed to further expand detection based on vision, sound, and odors.
“Because of their ubiquity, enormity of numbers, and seemingly boundless diversity, we desperately need to develop molecular and AI technologies that will allow us to automate sampling and identification,” says Wagner. “That would accelerate our ability to track insect populations, alert us to the presence of new disease vectors, exotic pest introductions, and unexpected declines.”