Technology to trigger memories and communication scoops major award

25 Oct 2013

Speech and language therapist Julia O'Rourke with the Enterprise Ireland - Cleveland Clinic Clinical Innovation Award 2013, and Keith O'Neill of Enterprise Ireland. Photo by Gary O'Neill

Julia O’Rourke has just won the Clinical Innovation Award 2013, sponsored by Enterprise Ireland and Cleveland Clinic, for technology called REMPAD, which supports ‘reminiscence activity’ for older people and those with dementia. She spoke to Claire O’Connell about the approach and how the award will open doors for the emerging technology.

O’Rourke admits she was initially stunned when she heard she had won the award, which was announced and presented at Enterprise Ireland’s Med in Ireland conference on Wednesday. But her reaction quickly turned to delight as she picked up the accolade for REMPAD, a web-based technology that makes it easy to deliver reminiscence sessions to small groups of older people, where triggers such as past news stories and events can stimulate memories and encourage communication. 

Memory triggers

Getting the memories and conversation going through reminiscence activity is an established approach that can be valuable for the healthy ageing population, as well as people with dementia and Alzheimer’s, according to O’Rourke, who is a speech and language therapist. “[Reminiscence sessions] have been proven to improve mood and well-being and also to have benefit on cognitive and communicative functioning,” she says.

It’s easy to see how it works – you might have vivid recollections of JFK visiting Ireland, of where you were when you heard John Lennon was shot or maybe you remember the reaction in 1996 when Take That announced they were breaking up, and they could spark conversations with people who have their own memories from those times.

Reminiscence sessions can use old object artifacts or clips from DVDs or CDs, but REMPAD allows carers to easily bring together suitable digital content through a web-based service and display it on a laptop, TV screen or tablet, making it easier to tailor and deliver sessions, explains O’Rourke. “We are stimulating people with memories from the past,” she says. “REMPAD is using multimedia archived content, using these clips to give people a reference point.”

But of course memory triggers can be quite specific and personal – I recently saw a video for the Phil Lynott song Old Town, and the sight of the gasometer crowbarred open a rich seam of memories about growing up in Dublin City in the 1970s and 1980s. Had I spent my youth in Letterkenny or Beijing, the gasometer may not have had such a warm and fuzzy effect. So how does REMPAD help to get the right clips in front of the people in the session?

It allows you to put in a profile of each person, with details such as where they have lived and when they lived there, plus if they have particular interests, explains O’Rourke. “Then you bring together a group and the REMPAD system’s classifiers and algorithms profile the people within the group and [the technology] recommends content from our digital archive accordingly.” 

Technical challenge, human interest

So far REMPAD has been trialled and validated in several care homes and has come a long way since O’Rourke started out bringing YouTube videos together herself for sessions.

After her studies at Trinity College Dublin, she took up a clinical post at Tallaght Hospital, where she worked as a speech and language therapist with children and with older people. Her work there with the online clips helped to form a collaboration with researchers at Dublin City University, led by Prof Alan Smeaton, to develop the software for recommending the appropriate material. “What attracted me to the work in the first place was the human interest of course,” says Smeaton. “But also the technical challenges of how to do recommendation of appropriate multimedia content to a group of people in a clinical setting, where there may be conflicts in what participants want to see, where the content has to be novel and stimulating, and where the system has to respond in real-time.”

With funding from Enterprise Ireland, the REMPAD prototype was built and then O’Rourke took another step and became lead promoter for the technology.

It was a difficult decision to step away from her clinical work to spend time on the business, she recalls, but getting a career break from the hospital and support from Enterprise Ireland helped to make her mind up. “Without EI’s backing it wouldn’t have gone to where it is now, it may well have stayed as a piece of tech in a university looking for someone to lead it out,” she says.  

New opportunities

Since then, O’Rourke has been further developing and promoting the technology, including a pitch at the recent Big Ideas conference. And now winning the Clinical Innovation Award stands to open doors when she works with the Cleveland Clinic’s wide network of clinicians and carers.  

“This has opened up a huge opportunity in the United States,” she says. “I’m looking forward to the collaboration around understanding how we can enhance the system’s usage with older people to improve quality of life, but also enhancing its function as a clinical outcome measurement tool in intervention in dementia care by looking at patient data over time and profiling it and showing trends. That is where I see it going.”

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Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication