Student Impact

Niveditha Muthukrishnan designs wearable technology to improve lives of Parkinson’s patients

student impact PhD graduate student diversity engineering
By Emily Carman on March 23, 2021

Niveditha Muthukrishnan traveled to ASU all the way from Chennai, the capital city of Tamil Nadu in India to pursue her PhD for three reasons. 

For one, you can’t beat the weather in Arizona. 

“I come from a place that’s extremely hot and I wasn’t ready to shovel snow,” Muthukrishnan laughed. 

The second reason is the diversity of the student and faculty population at ASU. 

“You can not miss meeting new different and diverse people at ASU,” she said. 

But, the main reason she came to ASU was to be a part of the exceptional biomedical engineering program and to take advantage of the opportunities this program would provide her.    

“Back in India, opportunities were very limited with many people competing for the same thing,” she said. “It’s a very different situation here in the US. There's plenty more opportunities and I don't want to miss them.”

Muthukrishnan will say yes (and has said yes) to every opportunity that ASU provides her. With her hands in many projects, Muthukrishnan hopes to make an impact, especially thorugh her research. 

Designing wearable tech for Parkinson’s patients

Muthukrishnan’s research is focused on helping people with Parkinson’s disease improve their balance and walking ability through the use of wearable tech.

“People with Parkinson's disease have trouble walking as well as maintaining an erect posture,” she explained. “So I specifically developed a wearable feedback system, which will measure their current walking and posture in real time, then give them auditory feedback to help them walk better.”

Muthukrishnan has designed monitors and sensors that patients can wear in their shoes or on their wrists. 

When patients are walking, the sensors monitor their posture and balance. Then, they receive visual and auditory feedback to help them correct any weaknesses in their stance or gait. 

“People with Parkinson's don't have that internal instruction,” Muthukrishnan explained. “So this technology tells them, ‘Okay, you need to take a longer step’ or ‘you need to be straight so that you don't fall.’ It’s an external cue to help them accomodate for what they don’t have.”

Muthukrishnan is still perfecting the technology. For the next four months, she will be compiling, researching and integrating a sound library in order to make the auditory feedback system efficient and easy to understand for users.   

While this technology is still in development, it has the potential to make a huge impact. 

The wearable tech is intended as a rehabilitation tool that Parkinson’s patients can wear at home. Rather than having to drive to a rehab clinic, patients can improve their posture and stride from the comfort of their home. This offers an extremely convenient solution.  

“We want to take this beyond the clinic, beyond the research,” Muthukrishnan said. “ We want to take it closer to home where they can use this and practice without much supervision, without too many complicated systems.”

The technology is also cost efficient and will help serve communities in need. 

“That's my ultimate goal. To have this finished product and take it to developing countries, because it is a cost effective approach,” she said. “It’s not elaborate. You can do it from the comfort of your home and you can get the physical therapy that you need.”

Inspired by dance

Muthukrishnan’s passion for her research stems from her fascination with the neuroscience behind movement. The fascination for movement stems from her love of dance. 

“I've been trained as a classical dancer since I was four years old. So I've always had a fascination for movement,” Muthukrishnan explained. “The underlying neuroscience behind movement, in dance and in studying these diseases, are the same.” 

In India, young children study classical music, classical dance, and other performing arts as part of their everyday education, Muthukrishnan said. However, not everyone continues to study the arts after they leave school, but Muthukrishnan did.  

“It's something I would look forward to after school always, no matter what. So, I stuck with it,” she said. 

Muthukrishnan continues to practice the traditional indian dance, Bharatanatyam.

Muthukrishnan dances with Swarajathi ASU, a group of students “who want to combine their talents to bring out the oneness and beauty of Indian classical music and dance.” 

Swarajathi ASU is a branch of the Society for the Promotion of Indian Classical Music And Culture Amongst Youth (SPICMACAY) at ASU. 

Muthukrishnan has been a member of these groups, promoting classical indian culture at ASU, since 2016. 

Advocating for others 

Not one to pass up any opportunities, Muthukrishnan is also involved with several other organizations and initiatives. 

Related to her research, Muthukrishnan works with foundations in India to spread awareness of Parkinson’s disease. 

“I have worked with a couple of foundations to start a support group for people with Parkinson's disease,” she said. “Back home in India, awareness is not even at 20% of what it is here.”

Additionally, Muthukrishnan is a contributor for the Sustainability Review, an ASU student-led publication that shares stories of sustainability to inspire interest, conversation and action.

Finally, two of her largest responsibilities are serving as a representative on the Graduate College’s Graduate Student Advisory Group and on ASU GPSA's Engineering and Professional Development Committees.    

“I'm extremely passionate about two things, that is professional development and having equal opportunities among the graduate schools and programs at ASU,” she said. 

As a graduate student representative, Muthukrishnan advocates for equal opportunities for all ASU graduate students and works to enhance mental, financial and emotional resources among graduate students. 

One of the main projects she is working on as part of the student group is updating the Graduate RA/TA Handbook to include more inclusive language. This project will impact graduate students at ASU for years to come.    

“If I am making that process easier for those grad students who come tomorrow, then I think I am doing something very good,” Muthukrishnan said.