The Apple Watch’s Heart Monitoring App Gets Smarter

The Apple Watch's heart rate monitor may soon be able to warn of AFib and other health problems

1 min read
Apple added functionality to the Apple Watch's heart rate monitoring app
Photo: Apple

Apple announced today that the company is updating the heart rate monitoring software in existing Apple watches so that they gather and display more information. This short statement, delivered amid two hours of hardware and software announcements, packs a huge amount of potential.

Jeff Williams, Apple chief operating officer, described the new features, explaining that enhancements to the heart rate app include: correlating heart rate and accelerometer data to calculate a wearer’s standard resting heart rate; monitoring recovery time, that is, how long it takes after an activity for the watch wearer’s heart rate to return to its resting state; and alerting the user when the app detects an elevated heart rate at times when other sensors are not picking up physical activity—a potential sign of trouble.

The app will also monitor heart rhythms, Williiams said. In a pilot study with Stanford Medicine set to begin later this year, the heart rate app will notify users of heart rhythm problems such as atrial fibrillation, or AFib, a common heart rhythm problem that can be asymptomatic until it leads to complications.

These enhancements represent just the tip of the iceberg with respect to what can be done with continuous heart rate monitoring. John Rogers, a pioneer in wearable electronics, and his team at Northwestern University will be launching a large study involving expectant mothers in January. Rogers and his team will use continuous heart rate monitoring via an MC10 BioStamp to gather heart rate and heart rate variability data. With appropriate data analytics, Rogers says, the researchers will be able to get clues pointing to psychological stress of the type that is known to have adverse effects on the gestational period. When stress levels are high, the subjects will receive alerts advising them to take preventive action, he says.

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Restoring Hearing With Beams of Light

Gene therapy and optoelectronics could radically upgrade hearing for millions of people

13 min read
A computer graphic shows a gray structure that’s curled like a snail’s shell. A big purple line runs through it. Many clusters of smaller red lines are scattered throughout the curled structure.

Human hearing depends on the cochlea, a snail-shaped structure in the inner ear. A new kind of cochlear implant for people with disabling hearing loss would use beams of light to stimulate the cochlear nerve.

Lakshay Khurana and Daniel Keppeler

There’s a popular misconception that cochlear implants restore natural hearing. In fact, these marvels of engineering give people a new kind of “electric hearing” that they must learn how to use.

Natural hearing results from vibrations hitting tiny structures called hair cells within the cochlea in the inner ear. A cochlear implant bypasses the damaged or dysfunctional parts of the ear and uses electrodes to directly stimulate the cochlear nerve, which sends signals to the brain. When my hearing-impaired patients have their cochlear implants turned on for the first time, they often report that voices sound flat and robotic and that background noises blur together and drown out voices. Although users can have many sessions with technicians to “tune” and adjust their implants’ settings to make sounds more pleasant and helpful, there’s a limit to what can be achieved with today’s technology.

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