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Facial features to be used to diagnose pain in dementia sufferers

Media release

Undiagnosed pain of dementia sufferers could soon be measured by facial recognition technology, as part of an Electronic Pain Assessment Tool (ePAT) being developed at Curtin University.

The ePAT, which is linked to the camera on a smart phone or tablet, is designed to quickly and accurately detect, evaluate and document the severity of pain in non-communicative patients with dementia.

Lead developer Professor Jeff Hughes, from Curtin’s School of Pharmacy, said the new tool would add an automated and innovative facial recognition component to more traditional methods of assessing pain.

It is hoped the technology will eventually translate to measuring pain levels in other non-communicative group such as babies and infants.

“A significant issue among some dementia sufferers is that they no longer have the communication skills to express the level of pain they are suffering,” Professor Hughes said.

“The seriousness of their pain can often go unrecognised. But automated evaluation technology will allow for the calculation of a pain severity score based in part on a patient’s facial expressions, captured by the smart phone or tablet.

“Combined with the American Geriatric Society’s other widely accepted pain indicators – vocalisation, behavioural change, psychological change, physiological change and physical change – ePAT will provide an accurate total pain score for the subject.

“The great hope is that dementia sufferers will no longer have to suffer in silence and that treatment stemming from ePAT evaluation can help give them a better quality of life.

“The obvious next step from there would be to use the technology to gauge pain scores in the very young.”

Professor Hughes said the growing number of people worldwide living with dementia underlined the potential value of the ePAT.

“Globally there are an estimated 36 million people living with dementia and this figure is predicted to rise to 115 million by 2050. In Australia, there will be one new person diagnosed with dementia every six minutes,” Professor Hughes said.

“With no current electronic tools available to assess pain in people with dementia, ePAT is an innovation that can be of great benefit – not only in terms of pain treatment but also improvement in cognitive function and care dependence.

“ePAT’s potential has already been demonstrated by the willingness of Alzheimer’s Australia to invest $50,0000 in the project and also fund a PhD student working on it.”

The ePAT innovation was a finalist in the 2013 Curtin Commercial Innovation Awards.

A panel of experts has been set up to aid in the development of the project and consultations are being undertaken with industry around the facial recognition component.

The computing partner for the project is Swiss-based nViso, a specialist in human facial micro-expressions and eye movements capture which won the 2013 IBM Beacon award for smarter computing.

The research team consists of Professor Hughes and his Curtin colleagues Dr Kreshnik Hoti, Mustafa Atee and Professor Moyez Jiwa.

It is hoped testing on ePAT will start in the first half of 2014.