Grant benefits patient care in Cleveland

By Regan Reeck

May 7, 2018

Linda Francis, Ph.D, an associate professor of sociology at Cleveland State University recently received a three-year, $150,000 grant from the Alzheimer’s Association to continue the development of an artificially intelligent computer program that takes a different approach to the way Alzheimer’s is viewed and treated.

The spearhead behind a four-person research team, Francis dubs herself a “sociologist of emotion,” and with that mindset she has developed an innovative approach to Alzheimer’s research. Her technique is one that focuses not on the loss of cognitive memory, but rather on the affective – the part of oneself that shapes personal sentiments and values.

“We don’t just think about things, we feel about them and those feelings aren’t ephemeral, they aren’t some fleeting biological thing,” Francis said. “We actually learn from them. You learn your attitudes, you learn your values, those are all emotional components and our research has indicated that those emotional components, those sentiments as they were, exist or persist longer than cognitive memory.”

In collaboration with Kathryn Lively, Ph.D., a professor of sociology at Dartmouth College, Jesse Hoey, Ph.D., an associate professor of computer science with the University of Waterloo and Julie Robillard, Ph.D., an assistant professor of neurology at the University of British Columbia, Francis is developing a computer program that will help staff at nursing homes interact better with patients living with Alzheimer’s.

All of the data collection will take place in Cleveland, and Francis explained that she hopes this program will help reduce instances of depersonalization – a common problem in nursing homes that affects all residents and can cause them to become frustrated and depressed. 

Among those with Alzheimer’s, this depersonalization can be much more harmful as they don’t always lack the capacity to express their frustrations.

“What we’re trying to do is see if we can get the staff in nursing homes to interact with people on the basis of their self-sentiments, rather than just on the basis of who they act like or what they do,” Francis said. “The lack of support for one’s self-sentiments tends to undercut one’s sense of self. They’re essentially denying them the ability to express themselves the way they think they should be.”

On a basic level, Francis claims how people feel about themselves can be broken down into three parts; people are good or bad, weak or strong and assertive or passive. This is the base of Francis’ self-sentiment profiles which are created through individual interviews.

Using the example of a patient who was formerly a military officer, she explained that while he may not know where he is or what job he used to have, the underlying sentiment is still present. He still feels as if he is good, strong and assertive.

“If they can still treat him in the way that he feels he should be treated, then he’s going to respond much more readily,” Francis said.

Built on this sociological theory of emotion, the computer program mimics human interaction and allows staff to run various simulations to see how a patient would react to a specific situation.

This information gives staff an idea of how to best interact with their patients and, because the program is artificially intelligent, it can be modified based on the mood of the individual.

“It really is very individualized by saying ‘Okay, we’re going to take this person’s self-sentiment profile and ask, ‘How can we tailor interaction so that it works with this person, rather than one size fits all,” Francis said. “The first tendency often is to say ‘Oh, this is an old person; this is a patient; this is a nursing home resident, and interacting with people on the basis of those identities. That’s not how people feel about themselves. It’s interacting with them on the basis of who they’ve felt they’ve always been.”

Background on Alzheimer’s

Alzheimer’s – a progressive disease that gradually steals an individual’s cognitive functions, including memory, facts and eventually reality, is potentially the third leading cause of death in the United States, according to research done by the National Institute on Aging.

Preceded only by heart disease and cancer, Alzheimer’s has no known cure or prevention and now affects more than 5.7 million Americans over the age of 65. Researchers estimate that this number will reach almost 14 million by 2050.

Due to the abysmal prognosis of the disease, researchers have aimed much of their efforts not on a cure, but rather on slowing down the progression of the disease and keeping those with Alzheimer’s comfortable.

Typically this research has focused on maintaining an individual’s cognitive functions for as long as possible with therapy like repetitive memory games. However, some researchers, including Linda Francis, Ph.D., have shifted their focus to the affective memory.


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