Researchers to test wearable device for weight loss

A collaboration among scientists at the University of Alabama, the Miriam Hospital, Brown and other universities will evaluate a device that monitors what you eat and delivers smartphone prompts.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Can a wearable device that monitors what you eat help you lose weight?

Researchers at the Miriam Hospital and Brown University, in collaboration with several other universities across the country, will seek to answer that question in a clinical trial funded by a $2.5 million grant from the National Institute of Health.

Graham Thomas, an associate professor of psychiatry and human behavior (research) at Brown and a behavioral scientist with the Miriam’s Weight Control and Diabetes Research Center, is the project’s co-principal investigator. He will use an ingenious device developed in collaboration with researchers at the University of Alabama to test the technology with adults with overweight or obesity.

“The hope is that this technology will give people a new, less burdensome way to monitor and take control of their eating,” Thomas said.

The device, clipped to prescription or nonprescription eyeglasses, includes a tiny, high-definition camera to photograph food as well as sensors that monitor chewing. The sensors accurately detect food intake and trigger the camera to record what was eaten and to measure when, how much and how fast the wearer eats.

Edward Sazonov, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Alabama and co-principal investigator, designed the patent-pending device, which he calls the Automatic Ingestion Monitor, or AIM.

“Changing eating behavior enough to achieve and maintain long-term weight loss is elusive,” Sazonov said. “We’re seeking to determine if a device that adapts to your individual eating habits can change that.”

Thomas said that Sazonov was looking to test his device and reached out to him about a collaboration because of his expertise in the science of health behaviors.

“My work has focused on the use of technology to understand and promote healthy behaviors, particularly those related to obesity,” Thomas said. “So this is right up my alley.”

The grant to the University of Alabama, via the NIH’s National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, will enable the researchers to test the device in a clinical trial over four years. An initial round of funding was awarded this fall. About half of the patients enrolled in the study will be recruited in Rhode Island by Thomas.    

During the clinical trial, the device’s built-in computer will communicate with the wearer’s smartphone and, when necessary, trigger the phone to send carefully designed messages suggesting modifications to the wearer’s eating behaviors.

Work by other researchers has shown that tracking what you eat by hand is one of the most powerful strategies for weight control, but it can be burdensome, tedious and error prone. Electronic fitness trackers have proven popular, so for those open to a high-tech wearable method to help in modifying their behaviors, the device could prove effective. 

“The key to this particular technology is to learn individual eating behaviors and then attempt to provide personalized feedback to modify those behaviors,” Sazonov said.

Measuring food intake, which previous studies show the technology can do accurately, is important. But it’s only part of the story.

“The way you eat is as important as what you eat,” Sazonov said. “We are also looking at the rates of ingestion. We want to slow down and be more mindful about our eating. Every person is different in when they eat, what they eat, how much they eat and how long they eat. We use machine learning to create a model of these individual eating patterns. After we learn the individual eating patterns, we see how it can be manipulated by suggesting small changes to reduce the total amount of energy consumed.”

Additional researchers on the project include Megan McCrory of Boston University, Janine Higgins of University of Colorado, and the University of Alabama’s Chris Crawford and Jason Parton.

This story was adapted from a news story authored by Richard Salit of the Miriam Hospital.