Innovations In Dementia Care
By Tracy Seipel
Santa Clara students, faculty, partner with Ferry Foundation to design solutions that enrich quality of life for those living with dementia, Alzheimer’s.
For eight years, Quentin Orem ’11 watched as his elegant, loving grandmother Maude Ferry struggled with dementia.
“It was gradual, kind of forgetting things,” he recalls. “Then forgetting more things, then starting to lose capacities, then starting to lose mobility, and then just a decline in her health.”
His grandfather, Richard Ferry, worked tirelessly to make his beloved wife’s life comfortable, manageable, and meaningful. But often the challenges—from adaptive clothing to brain health strategies—outnumbered the solutions.
Frustrated, the co-founder of Korn Ferry, a global management consulting firm, launched Maude’s Awards in 2019 to celebrate existing therapies and innovations—from arts engagement workshops to calming, immersive virtual reality experiences—that are enriching the quality of life for people living with dementia, and their caregivers.
In 2021, he founded Maude’s Ventures to fund the development of new innovations that could offer similar benefits.
“Our mission is really care before the cure,” says Orem, whose grandmother died in September 2021 at age 83. “That’s where we think we can add some value.”
Now his alma mater is on board. Over the last decade, Orem has watched as Santa Clara has beefed up its investments in health sciences and STEM, from the newly-opened Sobrato Campus for Discovery and Innovation to the Bioinnovation and Design Lab, led by the lab’s director Prashanth Asuri, an associate professor of bioengineering.
Through a confluence of discussions with Orem, SCU's development office and Asuri, an idea surfaced: Why not team SCU students and faculty with the Foundation to create an innovative and marketable idea? A detailed written proposal convinced the board of the Richard and Maude Ferry Foundation last fall to fund a $125,000, four-year project called Maude’s Ventures @ SCU.
Led by an interdisciplinary team of faculty mentors, students across a variety of disciplines at Santa Clara are currently being recruited to begin research, followed by “ideation sessions” to identify core problems in dementia care that could benefit from technology intervention.
“What separates us from most of the other R&D work is that we’re doing this in service of taking care of those living with memory loss, and not necessarily curing Alzheimer’s or dementia,” explains Asuri.
There is no cure for Alzheimer’s or dementia, but new products and treatments may help temporarily slow the worsening of dementia symptoms and improve quality of life for those with Alzheimer's, and their caregivers.
The market for innovative non-drug therapies is only expected to grow. The Centers for Disease Control currently estimates about 5.8 million people in the U.S. have Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias, most of them age 65 and older. By 2060, the number of Alzheimer’s disease cases is predicted to rise to an estimated 14 million people.
Known for creating strategic partnerships with industry to empower SCU students to discover, innovate, and address complex challenges within healthcare, Asuri believes it helped that Maude’s Ventures “liked our approach” of a multi-pronged, interdisciplinary effort.
The range of possible products, he adds, is wide open.
“It could be a virtual reality intervention, it could be a biowearable,” says Julia Scott, a senior research associate in the BioInnovation and Design Lab whose work there emphasizes brain health and brain aging.
It could be related to artificial intelligence: In 2020, the Lab partnered with Cortechs.ai, which creates artificial intelligence medical image analysis and diagnostic tools for Alzheimer’s disease. The project relied on SCU computer engineering students’ skills in machine learning to test ways to improve early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease by primary care physicians.
In a partnership with the Quietmind Foundation, an SCU multidisciplinary team has been working on a non-invasive brain modulation device that reads brain activity and stimulates the brain with near infrared light, which has been shown to improve symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease in the moderate stages.
Joining Asuri and Scott in the Maude’s Ventures @ SCU project are other SCU experts with relevant professional and personal experience with older adults, Alzheimer’s and dementia care, including Patti Simone, a professor of psychology who directs SCU’s Gerontology Certificate Program; Sheila Yuter, a lecturer of public health sciences whose focus includes care for older adults with mental and physical illnesses; and Emre Araci, an associate professor of bioengineering known for his work on contact lenses that reduce the impacts of glaucoma, the leading cause of blindness in the elderly. At least one type of glaucoma is believed to be associated with cognitive impairment, and possibly dementia.
This summer, three to four teams of SCU students and faculty members will travel to Seattle to present their design ideas to a group including individuals living with dementia or Alzheimer's, their caregivers, and memory care experts. The design sprint will take place at the Memory Hub, another Ferry Foundation project launched with the University of Washington Memory and Brain Wellness Center.
The winning concept will become the main project for Maude’s Ventures @ SCU, overseen by the Bioinnovation and Design Lab and a group of faculty and students who will spend the next two years developing the idea at Santa Clara University, then move it along to commercialization. Additional gifts through the Santa Clara University Memory and Brain Care Fund will support related student and faculty research, including the runner-up ideas, and feed the product development pipeline.
Orem, his grandfather, and the Ferry Foundation are looking forward to seeing the SCU teams’ proposals.
“Santa Clara has the time, and the space, and the resources at their disposal to build something new,” says Orem. “If we can bring in a little bit of seed capital so that they can help solve these challenges for the dementia community that don’t yet have solutions, that’s what’s important.”
Mar 14, 2022
Engineering students Louisa Mantilla '22, left, and Michelle Wong '22, are part of a team designing a prototype that stimulates the brain with near infrared light. Photos by Jim Gensheimer.