26 May 2022

New technology to prevent falls and keep us balanced

| Claire Fenwicke
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Two people observing a man on a Balance Mat

Balance Mat managing director Ian Bergman checks the data while UC researcher Dr Maryam Ghahramani puts Balance Mat’s George Tulloch through the motions. Photo: Tyler Cherry, UC Media.

New technology has promised to make measuring a person’s fall risk more affordable, accessible and accurate.

According to the NSW Clinical Excellence Commission, fall-related injuries are the single highest cause of hospital presentations.

It’s something University of Canberra researcher Dr Maryam Ghahramani has spent her life studying.

“It’s been proven that one in three people over the age of 65 fall each year, and this increases the older you are,” she said.

“Falls in older people have many devastating outcomes. They can lead to serious injuries and mental issues and even deaths.”

She jumped at the chance to work with Canberra start-up Balance Mat, a company that has created a new tool to determine a person’s ‘postural sway and stability’.

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Dr Ghahramani said that while there are already many devices that can measure these fall risk indicators, they are not always practical.

“Some are very expensive, or are very big and heavy, so they’re not easy to use everywhere,” she said.

“This one is light, small and user-friendly. You don’t need certain expertise to use it.

“My background is in human motion analysis for rehabilitation … with all research we do, we need it to be useful and practical; otherwise what’s the point?”

Dr Ghahramai is part of two teams using robotics to make sure the Balance Mat can produce consistently accurate and repeatable results.

A test subject is asked to complete a set of tasks while standing on the mat, with the results programmed into a connected computer.

Robots have also been used to stimulate different postural sways and stability to ensure the repeatable accuracy of the product.

Balance Mat managing director Ian Bergman approached her to undertake the research.

Mr Bergman has helped develop the technology for the past 14 years. He was initially involved with a security company looking to develop a device that could detect a person’s movement on the floor.

“One of the team members, Dean, came up with the idea of sending light through plastic optical fibre,” he said.

“Any disturbance on the surface is picked up and measured.”

While it was originally developed for the security sector Mr Bergman saw a chance to make a difference in health.

“Balance researchers around the world up until now have been using Nintendo Wiis to study neurological conditions and that triggered me,” he said.

“The postural sway of someone is an important indicator of their health. If someone is 95 and has been fit and healthy all their lives, their sway is fine.

“But if you have a neurological condition, diabetes, something like that, a lot can be seen through your movements.”

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The Balance Mat received TGA approval in December 2021, which Mr Bergman said made it the only Australian-made product of its kind in the country.

“Different medical conditions show up as different patterns,” he said.

“I definitely think this can become standardised in our healthcare system.”

Dr Ghahramani also hoped the device could soon be a standard part of a medical check up.

“It’s very important for us to predict a person’s balance deterioration so we can help … reduce their fall risk,” she said.

Visit the Balance Mat website for more information.

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