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Plan: Satellites Aid Alzheimer’s

April 3, 2000

MADRID, Spain (AP) _ The death of an Alzheimer’s patient who strayed from home and tumbled down a hillside has prompted an ambitious project to use satellites to find victims of the disease if they become lost.

The idea, developed by a Spanish Alzheimer’s association and due to be introduced late this year, is to have patients wear a tracer that give police real-time coordinates of their position if they wander too far.

Getting lost is an often lethal danger for victims of Alzheimer’s disease, a degenerative brain disorder that robs people of their memories, judgment and other mental skills.

The proposed tracer _ using global positioning system technology, or GPS _ would emit a signal that bounces off a satellite to a monitoring center if the patient goes beyond a certain radius from the home. Staff would call relatives and determine if the patient is in fact missing. If so, police can set out in search.

The idea originated three years ago when an Alzheimer’s patient wandered from his home in Barcelona and was found dead months later.

Then, in November of last year, another Alzheimer’s patient vanished from his home in the southwestern city of Almeria during a cold spell and was found dead days later curled up under a bridge.

``It takes dramatic things like these for people to become aware of the issue,″ said Paloma Ramos, president of the Spanish Association for Relatives of Alzheimer Victims.

A representative of the U.S. Alzheimer’s Association said a device like the one being built in Spain would be an important development.

One study conducted in the United States indicated that when an Alzheimer’s patient gets lost, after 24 hours pass there is a 46 percent chance they will die, said Gerald Flaherty, special projects coordinator of association’s Massachusetts chapter.

``Wandering is the most life-threatening behavior associated with Alzheimer’s,″ Flaherty said from Cambridge, Mass.

The project is initially to be run as a pilot experiment starting in Barcelona in October.

The device is being developed by a Spanish firm called Technosearch. Its president, Jose Luis Pellicer, said the challenges involved are daunting _ mainly, building a battery that is tiny but strong enough to send a signal to a satellite.

``The first-generation tracer will probably be about the size of a pack of cigarettes,″ Pellicer said. ``By the third or fourth generation, we hope to get it down to the size of a bracelet.″

If all goes well, that will take about two years and the final product will probably cost about $500, he said.

In the United States, Signatron Technology Corporation of Concord, Mass. is also working on a bracelet-style GPS tracer, said systems engineer Jim Zagami.

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On the Web: http://www.alzheimer-europe.org/

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