Developmental disabilities in children too often go undetected before the condition progress past the time when treatment could be most effective. The CDC states that parents, teachers, and others involved should all be on the lookout for developmental milestones in playing, learning, speaking, behaving, and moving.

Researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis developed wristwatch-like motion detectors that provide data for algorithms that detect upper extremity movement problems that doctors and parents might not notice. The team published the work with motion detection in JAMA Network Open in April 2019.

The senior author of the study, Nico Dosenbach, MD, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of neurology at Washington University who also sees patients at St. Louis Children’s Hospital. Dosenbach saw a teenager with motor impairment who had a major stroke as an infant, but no one noticed he had motion impairment until he was in his teens and a sporting goods store owner noticed his problems putting on a baseball glove. According to Dosenbach, strokes are more common during the first week after birth than any other week in a person’s life.

Working in conjunction with occupational therapist Catherine Hoyt, the study’s first author, Dosenbach developed wristwatch-like wearables with accelerometers. The two recruited 185 children from 2 months to 17 years old to wear the devices on both wrists 24 hours a day for four days. Twenty-nine of the kids had been diagnosed previously with motion impairments. The algorithm successfully differentiated the subjects who did and did not have motion problems.

The motion trackers in the study are reusable and cost less than $250 each, Dosenbach said. If physicians used motion trackers in routine screenings during with pediatric patients, Dosenbach believes more children whose impairments would otherwise have flown under the radar could be helped.