Smartphone app promises Parkinson’s disease diagnosis

A smartphone app developed by researchers in the UK could be used to help diagnose and treat Parkinson’s and other neurodegenerative diseases.

The software, which reinforces the convergence between conventional medical science and mobile technology, will shortly enter trials to see if it can distinguish between patients with Parkinson’s and healthy volunteers.

Dr Max Little – an applied mathematician from Aston University in Birmingham – developed the ‘pocket doctor’ alongside colleagues from various scientific disciplines and described the project at this year’s British Science Festival.

The app makes use of modern smartphone’s ability measure and record movement, activity, location and sound to assess people suspected of developing Parkinson’s disease over an extended period of time from the comfort of their own homes.

It could represent a significant advance on current methods of diagnosis which – because there is no simple biomarker – involves a battery of subjective tests and can be very difficult when the disease is in its early stages.

Little, who works at Aston’s Nonlinearity and Complexity Research Group, said: “This new kind of remote data analysis will help patients to monitor their conditions on a minute-by-minute basis” and could – potentially – help alleviate pressure on GPs and other National Health Service (NHS) resources.

To diagnose Parkinson’s, doctors will take a neurological history and perform an examination, looking at facial expression and signs of tremor in limbs, for example, and even when referred to a neurologist it can be hard to confirm a diagnosis of early-stage disease, as there are many other conditions that can lead to similar symptoms.

Stripping out false positives is also important, as studies indicate that one in five patients thought to have Parkinson’s show no evidence of the disease at post mortem.

Little and his team are now recruiting Parkinson’s patients and volunteers and asking them to carry smartphones running the software so they can collect data on how they move, how often they speak to others and how their voices alter over time. As information is recorded every 20 micro seconds, the amount of data gathered is vast.

The work builds on earlier work in his research lab which suggested that subtle signs of Parkinson’s can be detected in the voice patterns of people with the disease, using voice data generated from a 30-second phone call. Little presented his telephone research a couple of years ago at TEDGlobal 2012, suggesting it could identify Parkinson’s patients with 99% accuracy.

The new mobile technology could refine the diagnosis by combining the voice diagnostics with the detection of movement using the built-in accelerometer and GPS functions deployed in many modern smartphones and – potentially – allow doctors to pick put Parkinson’s sufferers from a clinical population rather than simply comparing them to healthy controls.

“Of course, it is still important that they receive regular advice and treatment from medical professionals, who may also benefit from this new technology,” Little told delegates at the BSF in Birmingham yesterday.

“Physicians may be able to use data collected by their patients’ smartphones to prescribe medications to help control the progress of neurodegenerative conditions,” as well as monitor he added.

The team are currently translating this technology and other collected data into a mobile format to provide daily analysis and feedback for individuals with Parkinson’s disease, and are also exploring its potential for other conditions, such as the genetic disorder Friedrich’s ataxia, which causes muscle weakness as well as loss of speech and hearing.

Other recent initiatives involving the use of smartphones to harvest medical data include a project by the UK Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), which has just set up a consortium to develop new ways of gathering information on suspected adverse drug reactions using mobile technology.

The WEB-RADR project’s ultimate aim is to develop a mobile app for healthcare professionals and the public to report suspected ADRs to national EU regulators.

Image: Shutterstock / Dragon Images

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