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UCLA lab develops necklace device that monitors nutrition

Haik Kalantarian, a graduate student in computer science, has helped produce a necklace that tracks its wearer’s food and drink intake. Kalantarian said the engineering aspect of the necklace is well-developed, but it needs design modifications to improve comfort and appearance. (Matt Cummings/Daily Bruin)

By Sylvia Lutze

April 14, 2015 1:25 a.m.

Through a necklace device that tracks the amount of food and drink a person consumes, a UCLA lab is trying to create technology that would improve preventive medicine.

Majid Sarrafzadeh, a computer science professor, runs a wireless health lab at UCLA that works with doctors to find and solve health problems through engineering and computer science.

Sarrafzadeh said he thinks technology can be used to cut medical costs for preventable diseases, and part of the lab’s work involves creating devices that can help individuals track their own health.

For example, the lab has created shoes that can analyze spinal cord injuries and bed sheets that help prevent bedsores.

The lab’s latest project is a necklace nutrition monitor called WearSens that tracks how much people eat and drink throughout the day by sensing the movement of neck muscles. The device connects to an app that can give recommendations on meal patterns and food intake.

The device works by sensing the vibrations in the neck muscles when a user swallows food and deciding on whether the wearer was drinking or eating, Sarrafzadeh said.

The necklace is not intended to keep an exact calorie count or to track what types of food the wearer is eating. Instead, it is designed to track the pattern of food and drink consumed and offer advice, such as not skipping breakfast, snacking less or drinking water more, said Haik Kalantarian, a graduate student in computer science who works in the lab.

The device can also tell when something in the wearer’s eating pattern has changed to help see what the cause behind the changes might be, Kalantarian said.

“We were baffled that we had pedometers (and) weight scales, but for nutrition, which is simply one of the most important things for health, there was no metric,” Sarrafzadeh said. “We wanted to do a pedometer for nutrition, or a weight scale for nutrition.”

Nabil Alshurafa, a graduate student in computer science in Sarrafzadeh’s lab, elected to stay at UCLA so he could work with Sarrafzadeh and on projects that involve the medical field. Alshurafa spent much of his education choosing whether to pursue medicine or computer science, and the lab provided an outlet for both interests.

“It was always in my mind, this whole notion of health, and just noticing the statistics in this country and all over the world, health is just deteriorating,” Alshurafa said. “Despite the fact that we have increased funding, technology and research.”

Typically, individuals who want to lose weight or monitor their diets more closely have to write down everything they eat to track food intake. However, some people may forget to keep track of every food they eat, so measurements may turn out inaccurate, Kalantarian said.

“If we could detect these eating patterns and eating behaviors in a seamless, fashionable, nice way it would make a huge difference,” Alshurafa said.

The researchers hope the device will also be used outside of commercial sale and weight loss. Doctors could use it to see if patients are dehydrated, or if they’re adhering to a prescribed all-liquid diet. Nutritionists could use it to see portion control and snacking habits, Alshurafa said.

In the future, the device may be used to sense smoking so doctors can track patient smoking habits and prevent patient dishonesty, Sarrafzadeh said.

The team is hoping to start clinical trials with the device soon to gauge consumer interest.

In future years, the team hopes it will be available both for commercial sale and for doctors to prescribe to patients as needed.

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Sylvia Lutze
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