U of R researchers look to innovative technology for solving health care challenges in seniors

By University Advancement and Communications Posted: August 31, 2020 2:00 p.m.

Dr. Thomas Hadjistavropoulos, the co-principal investigator of an innovative pain detection system and director of the University’s Centre on Aging and Health.
Dr. Thomas Hadjistavropoulos, the co-principal investigator of an innovative pain detection system and director of the University’s Centre on Aging and Health. Photo: U of R Photography

For the better part of three decades, Dr. Thomas Hadjistavropoulos, professor in the Department of Psychology, and director of the University’s Centre on Aging and Health (CAH), has been leading world class research into aging and pain in the elderly. Recently, Hadjistavropoulos and his co-principal investigator, Babak Taati, a researcher at KITE, the research arm of the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute (TRI), received a $550,000 award from AGE-WELL Network of Centres of Excellence, a pan-Canadian network that brings together researchers and others to accelerate the delivery of technology-based solutions that make a meaningful difference in the health of Canadians.

Dr. Babak Taati (co-principal investigator),
a researcher at KITE, the research arm of
the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute (TRI),
demonstrates his team’s pain detection
technology at a March 2019 U of R-hosted
event. Photo: U of R Photography

The funds, to be divided equally between the TRI and CAH, will be used to advance Hadjistavropoulos and Taati’s ongoing research on the development of advanced technologies aimed at helping to alleviate suffering of seniors with severe dementia and limited ability to communicate their state of pain.

To date, the team’s research has focused on the development of an image processing system that identifies pain from the facial expressions of elderly dementia sufferers in long-term care homes. The initial research involved development of an algorithm designed to detect pain behaviors in residents with severe dementia. This next phase will involve testing the system in the lab and in real time prior to moving it to long-term care facilities for real world testing. To protect resident’s privacy, the camera will not be recording, it will simply be processing the video images in real time. Using a sophisticated computer program that analyses the expressions of pain on the residents’ faces, the system will be aimed to signal health workers notifying them which resident requires attention. 

The project’s roots began with the Hadjistavropoulos’ lab collecting and coding more than one million video-recorded frames of facial responses that led to the development of a computerized algorithm capable of detecting pain expressions. The algorithm, further tested and developed by TRI, detects expressions such as wincing, frowning, and other facial reactions that suggest a resident is in pain and alerts medical staff to intervene.

“I have come to firmly believe that the greatest solutions in improving the quality of lives of these patients within our lifetime are far more likely to come from engineering than they are to come from the medical sciences,” says Hadjistavropoulos.

This second phase of the research will see the first real-time testing of the system with individuals in the Centre of Aging and Health lab. 

“We are currently working with the University’s Information Services who are helping us incorporate the algorithm into a system of sophisticated computerized equipment that we have in the lab,” explains Hadjistavropoulos. Prior to testing the system in a long-term care facility, human testing (in real time) will take place in a lab environment at the U of R. 

During the laboratory human testing, researchers will collect additional data that will help their TRI colleagues further improve the accuracy of the algorithm and potentially extend its ability to detect pain expressions from side views, as opposed to only front views of the face.  Once the lab testing is complete, and it’s safe from a COVID-19 perspective, the pain detection algorithm will be refined opening the door for testing in long-term care facilities. 

Other work planned from the funding is the improvement and further testing of a pain assessment application that has been developed and tested with colleagues at the University of Alberta. As well, the funds will help U of R researchers further develop their web-based platform designed for educating long-term care front line staff on new methods of pain assessment. 

The University has provided an additional $87,000 in funding, primarily for support of graduate students, the Saskatchewan Health Authority has provided $6,000 for the project, while an additional $54,500 has been pledged by the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute.

Support (in kind) has been provided by the Saskatchewan Health Authority, Toronto Rehabilitation Institute, Alzheimer Society of Saskatchewan, and the Saskatchewan Ministry of Health. 

Hadjistavropoulos has been the recipient of numerous prestigious honours including the Distinguished Contribution Award for Pain in Older Persons from the International Association for the Study of Pain Special Interest Group on Pain in Older Persons and the Saskatchewan Health Care Excellence Award. He’s been inducted as a Fellow in the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences, which represents one of the highest honours available to Canadian health scientists. He has published over 200 peer-reviewed papers and book chapters and his work has been published in prestigious science journals including The Lancet Neurology.

The Centre on Aging and Health brings together investigators focused on gerontological research in the areas of Indigenous health and aging, musculoskeletal health and mobility, pain in old age and personhood, and resilience in senior care. The centre also supports graduate student research projects and provides ongoing community outreach.


Centre on Aging and Health
Distinguished Contribution Award for Pain in Older Persons