Skip to content
Design Lab’s Edward Wang wins NIH R21 for work on Smartphone-based Alzheimer’s Screening

Design Lab’s Edward Wang wins NIH R21 for work on Smartphone-based Alzheimer’s Screening

Design Lab’s Edward Wang wins NIH R21 for work on Smartphone-based Alzheimer’s Screening

Design Lab’s Edward Wang wins NIH R21 for work on Smartphone-based Alzheimer’s Screening

Design Lab’s Edward Wang, who is a jointly appointed professor in Electrical & Computer Engineering in Jacobs School of Engineering at UC San Diego, wins a National Institutes of Health (NIH) R21 through the National Institute of Aging (NIA) for his work around transforming smartphones into pocket-sized personal health monitors. 

The NIA has selected Design Lab’s Edward Wang, who directs the Digital Health Lab, to receive NIH R21 funding for his work with Co-investigator Eric Granholm, Director of UCSD’s Center for Mental Health Technology (MHTech), to develop a smartphone app that can screen for early signs of cognitive decline indicative of Alzheimer’s Disease (AD). An NIH R21, also known as the Exploratory/Development Grant, provides support in the early and conceptual stages of a project’s development. As part of a national push towards combating the debilitating effects of AD, the National Institute of Aging looked towards funding novel ways to screen for AD through the use of digital technologies.

Edward Wang (left), Eric Granholm (right)

In the proposal, “Smartphone Pupillometer for At-Home Screening for Risk of Alzheimer’s Disease,” Wang, along with MHTech director and professor of Psychiatry Eric Granholm, aims to leverage camera systems found in smartphones to capture pupillary responses to cognitive tests as an indicator of the integrity of a specific part of the brain, the locus coeruleus, that has been shown to be one of the first sites affected by AD-related processes. By taking advantage of the smartphone as the vehicle for conducting such a test, Wang and Granholm believe that this approach of using digital technologies to capture physiological signals has the potential of significantly driving down the cost of deploying these screening solutions widely to combat public health challenges like AD. “By further enhancing the signals that are captured using just your phone with signal processing and machine learning, we are able to derive, what are known as, digital biomarkers,” Wang says. This approach strongly aligns with the NIA’s Notice of Special Interest, which states that “current biomarkers for early detection of prodromal AD […]  are costly and invasive”, and digital biomarkers “can be used to inform disease prediction and management at both the individual and populational level.” 

AD is a progressive degenerative disorder of the brain and is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States, with the latest statistics showing that at least five million Americans over the age of 65 suffer from the disease. Not only is it the most common form of dementia of elderly adults, it is projected that cases of AD will double by 2025. By 2050, it is projected that a total annual cost for health care for people with AD will be more than $1 trillion. ADis clearly a public health crisis. “Our solution is based on previous findings in our research with older adults with mild cognitive impairment, where we studied how differences in pupil dilation in response to memory tests are associated with very early signs of AD,” Granholm says. “It is based on these findings that we are developing this smartphone solution.” If successful, Granholm notes, it would be possible for older adults to perform this test even in the comforts of their own home or by their primary care provider. This is compared with what is available today, which are far more invasive solutions like PET/MRI imaging and lumbar puncture for biomarkers in the spinal fluid.  

As a faculty in the Design Lab, Wang has a particular interest in developing technologies through a lens of human centered design. Wang has had a record of inventing new smartphone-based health monitoring solutions such as hemoglobin/anemia screening, blood pressure monitoring, and ocular disease. In developing these solutions, Wang has worked with a wide range of collaborators across the world to develop and test these systems with end users to make sure that the purported solutions truly can work with the target users and in realistic conditions. “Sometimes what we find is that an idea works well in lab settings where we can control the lighting and temperature of the room, but completely fails in realistic conditions that screening tools like these have to operate under.”


Wang working in a village in the Amazon Jungle of Peru testing his smartphone hemoglobin monitor

In a previous workaround anemia screening, Wang worked with NGOs in Peru to bring his prototype app into villages nestled in the Amazonian Jungle, where NGO staff regularly travel to in order to perform anemia screening and treatments. “It turns out, we never considered that the main use case for our technology is really to screen for anemia in kids under 3 years old. Although the physics still holds, behaviorally, kids at that age are so different that we basically couldn’t get the kids to stay still long enough to be able to measure them with our app,” Wang reflects. “One of the common misconceptions in engineering research is that we can always build it to work better with enough resources once a technology leaves the lab,” Wang says, “The issue with that kind of approach  is that sometimes that can lead us into solutions that don’t have a chance of working. That is why human centered design being a central loop in the research is so important.”

Wang notes that keeping the elder user base in mind is crucial in the success of this research endeavor. “One of the things I think is particularly interesting in working on digital technology for the older population is that it requires a lot more nuances around usability,” Wang explains. “Our big hope is that [our app] works with little to no training with either home care providers or with the older adults themselves.” Wang cautions, however, that these solutions are far from ready and requires extensive research on how well such digital biomarkers can differentiate diseases and how they will ultimately serve in the entire ecosystem of healthcare. “Our research aims to solve big healthcare problems by looking for creative ways to invent new ways our society can screen and treat diseases. But this shift that brings healthcare closer to everyday life, literally into our pockets, means that we will have to be very intentional in our designs of how people will use these technologies to be not only useful, but safe as well.”

Read more about Wang’s research on digital health technologies at UCSD. 

Congratulations, Edward!

Design Lab’s Edward Wang, who is a jointly appointed professor in Electrical & Computer Engineering in Jacobs School of Engineering at UC San Diego, wins a National Institutes of Health (NIH) R21 through the National Institute of Aging (NIA) for his work around transforming smartphones into pocket-sized personal health monitors. 

The NIA has selected Design Lab’s Edward Wang, who directs the Digital Health Lab, to receive NIH R21 funding for his work with Co-investigator Eric Granholm, Director of UCSD’s Center for Mental Health Technology (MHTech), to develop a smartphone app that can screen for early signs of cognitive decline indicative of Alzheimer’s Disease (AD). An NIH R21, also known as the Exploratory/Development Grant, provides support in the early and conceptual stages of a project’s development. As part of a national push towards combating the debilitating effects of AD, the National Institute of Aging looked towards funding novel ways to screen for AD through the use of digital technologies.

Edward Wang (left), Eric Granholm (right)

In the proposal, “Smartphone Pupillometer for At-Home Screening for Risk of Alzheimer’s Disease,” Wang, along with MHTech director and professor of Psychiatry Eric Granholm, aims to leverage camera systems found in smartphones to capture pupillary responses to cognitive tests as an indicator of the integrity of a specific part of the brain, the locus coeruleus, that has been shown to be one of the first sites affected by AD-related processes. By taking advantage of the smartphone as the vehicle for conducting such a test, Wang and Granholm believe that this approach of using digital technologies to capture physiological signals has the potential of significantly driving down the cost of deploying these screening solutions widely to combat public health challenges like AD. “By further enhancing the signals that are captured using just your phone with signal processing and machine learning, we are able to derive, what are known as, digital biomarkers,” Wang says. This approach strongly aligns with the NIA’s Notice of Special Interest, which states that “current biomarkers for early detection of prodromal AD […]  are costly and invasive”, and digital biomarkers “can be used to inform disease prediction and management at both the individual and populational level.” 

AD is a progressive degenerative disorder of the brain and is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States, with the latest statistics showing that at least five million Americans over the age of 65 suffer from the disease. Not only is it the most common form of dementia of elderly adults, it is projected that cases of AD will double by 2025. By 2050, it is projected that a total annual cost for health care for people with AD will be more than $1 trillion. ADis clearly a public health crisis. “Our solution is based on previous findings in our research with older adults with mild cognitive impairment, where we studied how differences in pupil dilation in response to memory tests are associated with very early signs of AD,” Granholm says. “It is based on these findings that we are developing this smartphone solution.” If successful, Granholm notes, it would be possible for older adults to perform this test even in the comforts of their own home or by their primary care provider. This is compared with what is available today, which are far more invasive solutions like PET/MRI imaging and lumbar puncture for biomarkers in the spinal fluid.  

As a faculty in the Design Lab, Wang has a particular interest in developing technologies through a lens of human centered design. Wang has had a record of inventing new smartphone-based health monitoring solutions such as hemoglobin/anemia screening, blood pressure monitoring, and ocular disease. In developing these solutions, Wang has worked with a wide range of collaborators across the world to develop and test these systems with end users to make sure that the purported solutions truly can work with the target users and in realistic conditions. “Sometimes what we find is that an idea works well in lab settings where we can control the lighting and temperature of the room, but completely fails in realistic conditions that screening tools like these have to operate under.”


Wang working in a village in the Amazon Jungle of Peru testing his smartphone hemoglobin monitor

In a previous workaround anemia screening, Wang worked with NGOs in Peru to bring his prototype app into villages nestled in the Amazonian Jungle, where NGO staff regularly travel to in order to perform anemia screening and treatments. “It turns out, we never considered that the main use case for our technology is really to screen for anemia in kids under 3 years old. Although the physics still holds, behaviorally, kids at that age are so different that we basically couldn’t get the kids to stay still long enough to be able to measure them with our app,” Wang reflects. “One of the common misconceptions in engineering research is that we can always build it to work better with enough resources once a technology leaves the lab,” Wang says, “The issue with that kind of approach  is that sometimes that can lead us into solutions that don’t have a chance of working. That is why human centered design being a central loop in the research is so important.”

Wang notes that keeping the elder user base in mind is crucial in the success of this research endeavor. “One of the things I think is particularly interesting in working on digital technology for the older population is that it requires a lot more nuances around usability,” Wang explains. “Our big hope is that [our app] works with little to no training with either home care providers or with the older adults themselves.” Wang cautions, however, that these solutions are far from ready and requires extensive research on how well such digital biomarkers can differentiate diseases and how they will ultimately serve in the entire ecosystem of healthcare. “Our research aims to solve big healthcare problems by looking for creative ways to invent new ways our society can screen and treat diseases. But this shift that brings healthcare closer to everyday life, literally into our pockets, means that we will have to be very intentional in our designs of how people will use these technologies to be not only useful, but safe as well.”

Read more about Wang’s research on digital health technologies at UCSD. 

Congratulations, Edward!

Design Lab’s Edward Wang, who is a jointly appointed professor in Electrical & Computer Engineering in Jacobs School of Engineering at UC San Diego, wins a National Institutes of Health (NIH) R21 through the National Institute of Aging (NIA) for his work around transforming smartphones into pocket-sized personal health monitors. 

The NIA has selected Design Lab’s Edward Wang, who directs the Digital Health Lab, to receive NIH R21 funding for his work with Co-investigator Eric Granholm, Director of UCSD’s Center for Mental Health Technology (MHTech), to develop a smartphone app that can screen for early signs of cognitive decline indicative of Alzheimer’s Disease (AD). An NIH R21, also known as the Exploratory/Development Grant, provides support in the early and conceptual stages of a project’s development. As part of a national push towards combating the debilitating effects of AD, the National Institute of Aging looked towards funding novel ways to screen for AD through the use of digital technologies.

Edward Wang (left), Eric Granholm (right)

In the proposal, “Smartphone Pupillometer for At-Home Screening for Risk of Alzheimer’s Disease,” Wang, along with MHTech director and professor of Psychiatry Eric Granholm, aims to leverage camera systems found in smartphones to capture pupillary responses to cognitive tests as an indicator of the integrity of a specific part of the brain, the locus coeruleus, that has been shown to be one of the first sites affected by AD-related processes. By taking advantage of the smartphone as the vehicle for conducting such a test, Wang and Granholm believe that this approach of using digital technologies to capture physiological signals has the potential of significantly driving down the cost of deploying these screening solutions widely to combat public health challenges like AD. “By further enhancing the signals that are captured using just your phone with signal processing and machine learning, we are able to derive, what are known as, digital biomarkers,” Wang says. This approach strongly aligns with the NIA’s Notice of Special Interest, which states that “current biomarkers for early detection of prodromal AD […]  are costly and invasive”, and digital biomarkers “can be used to inform disease prediction and management at both the individual and populational level.” 

AD is a progressive degenerative disorder of the brain and is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States, with the latest statistics showing that at least five million Americans over the age of 65 suffer from the disease. Not only is it the most common form of dementia of elderly adults, it is projected that cases of AD will double by 2025. By 2050, it is projected that a total annual cost for health care for people with AD will be more than $1 trillion. ADis clearly a public health crisis. “Our solution is based on previous findings in our research with older adults with mild cognitive impairment, where we studied how differences in pupil dilation in response to memory tests are associated with very early signs of AD,” Granholm says. “It is based on these findings that we are developing this smartphone solution.” If successful, Granholm notes, it would be possible for older adults to perform this test even in the comforts of their own home or by their primary care provider. This is compared with what is available today, which are far more invasive solutions like PET/MRI imaging and lumbar puncture for biomarkers in the spinal fluid.  

As a faculty in the Design Lab, Wang has a particular interest in developing technologies through a lens of human centered design. Wang has had a record of inventing new smartphone-based health monitoring solutions such as hemoglobin/anemia screening, blood pressure monitoring, and ocular disease. In developing these solutions, Wang has worked with a wide range of collaborators across the world to develop and test these systems with end users to make sure that the purported solutions truly can work with the target users and in realistic conditions. “Sometimes what we find is that an idea works well in lab settings where we can control the lighting and temperature of the room, but completely fails in realistic conditions that screening tools like these have to operate under.”


Wang working in a village in the Amazon Jungle of Peru testing his smartphone hemoglobin monitor

In a previous workaround anemia screening, Wang worked with NGOs in Peru to bring his prototype app into villages nestled in the Amazonian Jungle, where NGO staff regularly travel to in order to perform anemia screening and treatments. “It turns out, we never considered that the main use case for our technology is really to screen for anemia in kids under 3 years old. Although the physics still holds, behaviorally, kids at that age are so different that we basically couldn’t get the kids to stay still long enough to be able to measure them with our app,” Wang reflects. “One of the common misconceptions in engineering research is that we can always build it to work better with enough resources once a technology leaves the lab,” Wang says, “The issue with that kind of approach  is that sometimes that can lead us into solutions that don’t have a chance of working. That is why human centered design being a central loop in the research is so important.”

Wang notes that keeping the elder user base in mind is crucial in the success of this research endeavor. “One of the things I think is particularly interesting in working on digital technology for the older population is that it requires a lot more nuances around usability,” Wang explains. “Our big hope is that [our app] works with little to no training with either home care providers or with the older adults themselves.” Wang cautions, however, that these solutions are far from ready and requires extensive research on how well such digital biomarkers can differentiate diseases and how they will ultimately serve in the entire ecosystem of healthcare. “Our research aims to solve big healthcare problems by looking for creative ways to invent new ways our society can screen and treat diseases. But this shift that brings healthcare closer to everyday life, literally into our pockets, means that we will have to be very intentional in our designs of how people will use these technologies to be not only useful, but safe as well.”

Read more about Wang’s research on digital health technologies at UCSD. 

Congratulations, Edward!

Read Next

Tricia Ngoon

Tricia Ngoon, UCSD & Design Lab PhD Graduate, Discusses “Adaptive Conceptual Guidance”

Currently, in the spotlight of Tricia Ngoon’s research and involvement with The Design Lab is her recently accepted paper, Shöwn: Adaptive Conceptual Guidance Aids Example Use in Creative Tasks, which will appear in the Designing Interactive Systems virtual conference this summer, 2021. Her research hypothesizes that providing “adaptive conceptual guidance” will improve a person’s implementation of examples within creative work, as opposed to providing a static example. Using the domain of web comics, “[researchers in the study] present concepts to people alongside examples as they work.” Ngoon adds that “It’s essentially a step towards coaching. For example, if [a person is] working on a comic you might present a concept to consider the framing or kind of the composition of the panel and then [show] examples of different types of framing and composition.” Ultimately, her research concluded that “these adaptive suggestions as a person is working in context really help with making a clear and more unique story. It kind of changes the way they look at their ideas because they are more likely to explore different [ones].” 
Benjamin Bergen

Design Lab member Benjamin Bergen featured as an expert in “History of Swear Words”

Picture Credit: Netflix

Design Lab member and UC San Diego Cognitive Science professor Benjamin Bergen was featured as an expert in "History of Swear Words," a new Netflix comedy series exploring the usage of and science behind cursing. Bergen is the author of "What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves" and "Louder Than Words: The New Science of How the Mind Makes Meaning"

Watch the full series now on Netflix!

Frontier Design Prize Announces Winners at World Design Cities Conference

Shanghai, September 15, 2022 | The Frontier Design Prize announced the winners of its inaugural edition during the opening ceremony of the World Design Cities Conference (WDCC).  Mr. QU Xing, Deputy Director-General of UNESCO, Mr. GONG Zheng, Mayor of Shanghai, Ms. XU Xiaolan, Vice Minister of Industry and Information Technology (China), along with leading designers, scholars and industry leaders, attended the award ceremony. The Frontier Design Prize (FDP) is a visionary, innovative, world-class design award established with the aims of encouraging design innovation, enhancing the impact of design in driving industrial transformation, and promoting the role of design in shaping a better world. A central program of WDCC, it is undertaken by Design Innovation Institute Shanghai (DIIS) with guidance from the Shanghai Municipal Government. 

Design Lab & UCSD Spaces strive for Educational Equity Through Design

Who better to learn about good design than the people who will most benefit from…

FCC Connect2Health L.A.U.N.C.H.

FCC’s Connect2Health Task Force has released the L.A.U.N.C.H. Senior Leadership Think Tank

Design Lab participants: Faculty member Eliah Aronoff-Spencer and Post-Doc Melanie McComsey

The Federal Communications Commission's Connect2Health Task Force and the National Cancer Institute (NCI) of the National Institutes of Health convened a groundbreaking meeting at FCC headquarters in Washington, DC, with senior thought leaders from both the public and private sectors and across the country. The broad expertise included representatives from government, academia, industry, healthcare systems, public health, biotechnology, design and innovation, and telecommunications. The day-long meeting was designed to usher in the next phase of the L.A.U.N.C.H. initiative by gathering information and individual expert input related to the initiative's efforts to date.
Mai Nguyen

Announcing Appointment of Mai Thi Nguyen, Director of The Design Lab

We are pleased to announce the appointment of Dr. Mai Thi Nguyen as the next Faculty Director of the Design Lab, effective March 24, 2021.

Dr. Nguyen holds a Ph.D. in Urban and Regional Planning from the University of California, Irvine and an M.A. in Sociology from Pennsylvania State University. She is an associate professor in the department of City & Regional Planning at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, where she directs the Center for Community Capital, a non-partisan, multi-disciplinary research center housed within the College of Arts and Sciences. Dr. Nguyen additionally directs the Academic Leadership Program at UNC-CH, providing leadership training and mentorship to cohorts of academic leaders. She also serves as Director of the Equity and Resilience Lab, whose members are dedicated to the inquiry of equity and resilience in urban planning and public policy.
Back To Top