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Google creates a spoon that steadies tremors

Hundreds of algorithms allow a Liftware spoon to stay balanced despite tremors in the hand of the person using the spoon. In tests, shaking of the spoon fell 76 percent.
Hundreds of algorithms allow a Liftware spoon to stay balanced despite tremors in the hand of the person using the spoon. In tests, shaking of the spoon fell 76 percent. Photos by Eric Risberg/Associated press

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — Google is throwing its money, brainpower, and technology at the humble spoon.

The Google version, which uses hundreds of algorithms, allows people with tremors and Parkinson’s disease to eat without spilling. The technology senses how a hand is shaking and makes instant adjustments to stay balanced. In trials, the Liftware spoons reduced shaking of the spoon bowl by an average of 76 percent.

‘‘We want to help people in their daily lives today and hopefully increase understanding of disease in the long run,’’ spokeswoman Katelin Jabbari said.

Other devices have been developed to help people with tremors, including rocker knives, weighted utensils, and pen grips. But until now, the experts say, technology has not been used in this way.

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‘‘It’s totally novel,’’ said a neurologist at the University of California San Francisco Medical Center, Dr. Jill Ostrem.

She helped advise the inventors and says the device, which has a fork attachment, is a remarkable asset.

‘‘I have some patients who couldn’t eat independently, they had to be fed, and now they can eat on their own,’’ she said. ‘‘It doesn’t cure the disease — they still have tremor — but it’s a very positive change.’’

Google got into the no-shake utensil business in September, acquiring a small, National of Institutes of Health-funded startup called Lift Labs for an undisclosed sum.

More than 10 million people worldwide, including Google cofounder Sergey Brin’s mother, have essential tremors or Parkinson’s disease. Brin has said he has a mutation associated with higher rates of Parkinson’s and has donated more than $50 million to research. But the Lift Labs acquisition was not related, Jabbari said.

Lift Lab founder Anupam Pathak said moving from a four-person startup in San Francisco to the vast Google campus in Mountain View has freed him to be more creative.

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His team works at the search giant’s division called Google(x) Life Sciences, which is also developing a contact lens that measures glucose levels in tears for diabetics and is researching how nanoparticles in blood might help detect diseases.

Joining Google has been motivating, Pathak said, but his focus is people who are able to eat independently with his device.

‘‘If you build something with your hands and it has that sort of an impact, it’s the greatest feeling ever,’’ he said.

Pathak hopes to add sensors to the spoons to help researchers better understand, measure, and alleviate tremors.

Shirin Vala, 65, of Oakland, has had a tremor for a decade. She was at her monthly Essential Tremor meeting at a clinic earlier this year when researchers asked if anyone was interested in helping them.

As the device was refined, she tried it out and gave feedback. When they hit the market at $295 apiece, she bought one.

Without the spoon, Vala said, eating was a challenge. ‘‘I was shaking and I had a hard time to keep the food on a spoon, especially soup or something like an olive or tomatoes or something. It is very embarrassing. It’s very frustrating.’’

With the spoon, ‘‘I was surprised that I held the food in there so much better. It makes eating much easier, especially if I’m out at a restaurant.’’