Improving quality of life, enhancing degenerative disease detection

Contact: Erin Flynn
Alessander Danna-dos-Santos stands next to a student who is balancing on one leg on a platform.

Dr. Alessander Danna-dos-Santos shows students how AI technology can detect slight shifts in balance, allowing doctors to track changes over time and potentially create exercises for patients to improve balance.

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—High tech at low cost: That’s Dr. Alessander Danna-dos-Santos’ mission. An associate professor of physical therapy in the College of Health and Human Services as well as a neuroscientist, his research focuses on human movement and control—especially related to degenerative diseases and traumatic events.

His passion lies in developing technology to bridge the gap between marginalized and underserved populations and affordable health care. Artificial intelligence has allowed him to ramp up the impact of his work.

“There are people who use some of this (AI) technology for making a killing on the stock market or helping them with getting better chances on the lottery. That’s not my mission. My mission is to create things and make things a little more accessible for people who need them. And we’re very much on the front of the wave when it comes to technology.”

Alessander Danna-dos-Santos gestures toward a mulit-colored drawing of a brain on a white board.

Danna-dos-Santos has a number of projects in progress, including:

*Using AI technology for early detection of neurological diseases by detecting slight changes in a person’s balance and movement.

*A virtual physical therapy assistant that can monitor movement and suggest exercises in real time.

*Inertial motion units, which involve technology that uses sensors to map a person’s body and track movements in real time and enable a full analysis of motion over a span of time.

Cost and access to transportation can be prohibitive to physical therapy (PT) treatment. Danna-dos-Santos learned how to code so that he could write a program to bring PT to patients. It would allow a physical therapist to enter suggested treatments and exercises for patients based on their abilities and enlist a virtual assistant to monitor movement and suggest exercises in real time.

“The idea is that you have the potential to reach these patients, allow them to have access to cutting-edge technology that is reliable, and at the same time you save them time and money on transportation, allowing them to stay at home and avoid other potential traumas like falls,” he says.

AI also allows practitioners to have better documentation of patient cases by tracking data over time. It could be useful in detecting deterioration in things like range of motion or balance—a potential game changer for patients with degenerative diseases.

“All of the physiological changes that impact the central nervous system start decades before the first symptoms start showing up. More and more (with the help of artificial intelligence) we are able to pick that up,” he says.

Danna-dos-Santos is working on developing affordable technology that trains AI on all potential parameters to indicate abnormalities in the central nervous system well in advance of a traditional diagnosis. It could eventually be used for screening patients at higher risk of developing neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s.

“Not only would it help with early detection, but it also could make quality of life much better for a patient over time. Most neurodegenerative diseases have a good response with very simple changes in life such as exercise, healthier diet or relief of stress.”

With AI cracking open the realm of possibility for improving treatments and revolutionizing health care, Danna-dos-Santos sees the rapidly evolving technology as a symbiotic partnership with the potential to change the world for the better.

“I’m a big believer that technology doesn’t surpass people. Our brain, our abilities, our skills as human beings—we’re able to do much more than computers. Computers are going to be helping us, robots are going to be helping us, but it’s just a matter of how we apply that.” ■