Fitness trackers can enhance biomedical research

Wednesday, 28 February, 2018

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Researchers in Singapore have found that wearable sensors are not just useful for personal fitness tracking — they can also be used to gain new insights in several fields of biomedical research.

The increasing availability and take-up of low-cost consumer-grade wearables has given rise to considerable interest in how these devices can enhance and augment biomedical research and health care. Answering this question has, however, proved challenging, largely due to a lack of comprehensive datasets that integrate wearable data with other data types.

The breakthrough came from Weng Khong Lim and colleagues from the SingHealth Duke-NUS Institute of Precision Medicine and the National Heart Centre Singapore. Together, the researchers profiled 233 volunteers using multiple approaches — including wearable-based activity and heartrate monitoring, lifestyle questionnaires, cardiac imaging, serum lipidomics (profiling of fats in the blood) and a battery of other clinical tests.

Writing in the journal PLOS Biology, the researchers revealed that wearables are not only able to identify groups of volunteers with similar patterns of daily activity, they can also predict various markers of risk for cardiovascular diseases. Notably, the team found that wearable activity data could be used to identify active individuals at increased risk of having enlarged hearts, a condition also known as ‘athlete’s heart’, commonly thought only to affect competitive athletes.

“An enlarged left ventricle could be caused by heart disease or harmless adaptation to sustained exercise, and these two conditions share overlapping features,” said Professor Stuart Cook, a senior author on the study. “Activity data from wearables may help us identify individuals more likely to have this condition due to exercise, and are therefore at risk of misdiagnosis in the clinic.”

The team also showed that activity data from wearables can predict circulating levels of a class of sphingolipids known as ceramides, which have been associated with obesity, diabetes and heart disease, with co-senior author Khung Keong Yeo noting, “Compared to their more sedentary counterparts, active volunteers had lower levels of circulating ceramides.

“In the past, researchers studying the interaction between lifestyle and lipid metabolism would have relied on questionnaires or expensive experimental studies.”

The findings thus demonstrate the potential for wearables in biomedical research and personalised health.

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