Bridget Armstrong, PhD, will use the five-year grant to test a wearable device that monitors children’s activity and sleep, designed to be comfortable, unobtrusive, and child-friendly for long-term wear.

Summary: Bridget Armstrong, PhD, has been awarded a $3.5 million grant from the NIH to test PATCH, a device designed to monitor children’s health metrics such as activity levels and sleep. Unlike existing trackers that are not tailored for children, PATCH is small, unobtrusive, and custom-made for comfort and long-term wear, utilizing open-source software to allow researchers direct access to raw data. This study aims to validate PATCH’s effectiveness in both controlled and natural environments, potentially offering a new tool for addressing childhood obesity and improving child health monitoring methodologies.

Key Takeaways: 

  • Bridget Armstrong, PhD, received a five-year, $3.5 million grant from the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute to test PATCH (Platform for Accurate Tracking of Children’s Health), a wearable device specifically designed to measure children’s physical activity, sedentary time, and sleep.
  • PATCH is distinct because it is small (one inch by one inch), open-source, and integrates multiple sensors to capture everyday activities accurately. It is designed to be unobtrusive, water-resistant, and comfortable for children, making it suitable for extended use in real-life settings.
  • The research funded by this grant aims to establish the validity of PATCH in both laboratory and free-living conditions.

Exercise science assistant professor Bridget Armstrong, PhD, has been awarded $3.5 million from the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute to test the effectiveness of PATCH (Platform for Accurate Tracking of Children’s Health), a wearable device designed by exercise science and electrical engineering faculty in 2020 to measure children’s routine activities (eg, physical activity, sedentary time, sleep, etc).

“Assessing children’s 24-hour movement behaviors can reveal the complex and interdependent ways energy expenditure and sleep are related to health outcomes,” Armstrong says in a release. “However, assessing these activities among children in free-living conditions is inherently difficult, and every available method has its own limitations.”

Uniquely Designed for Children’s Needs

Previous research has shown that devices that measure both heart rate and accelerometry offer the most precise estimates of activity and sleep. Yet those that do measure both (eg, ActiHeart, Fitbit) are not designed for children. They can be distracting, uncomfortable, and inaccurate. Further, most commercially available trackers use proprietary algorithms that do not allow access to the raw data that researchers need to analyze.

Enter PATCH. This small (only one inch by one inch), open-source wearable device integrates multiple sensors that accurately capture everyday activities. Custom-made to meet the needs of scientists and the comfort of kids, PATCH is designed to be unobtrusive, water resistant, and worn for many hours/days (important for scientific studies).

Testing and Potential Impact

The team has already conducted a pilot study funded by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Using a $420K R21 grant, Armstrong and members of the Arnold Healthy Kids Initiative and Research Center for Child Well-Being invited 60 children (ages 3 to 8 years old) to test drive an early version of the device with promising results.

With this study, the team will conduct a series of studies to establish PATCH’s validity in both laboratory and free-living conditions. If their research establishes its effectiveness, this device (made from off-the-shelf parts) and its open-source software could be a game-changer for scientists working to combat the childhood obesity epidemic.

“Our long-term goal is to give scientists better tools to measure kids’ energy expenditure and sleep when they are outside the lab, going about their daily lives; doing so is essential if we want to understand how kids grow, move, and develop,” Armstrong says in a release. “The results from this project will help other researchers to build their own PATCH device and independently process the data, thereby overcoming issues related to proprietary hardware and algorithms that currently limit the field of wearable devices.”

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