Smartphones could beat doctors to diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease

SMARTPHONES can act as “pocket doctors”, diagnosing Parkinson’s and other degenerative diseases with astonishing accuracy on the basis of users’ movements and voice.

Trials of the technique with up to 3,000 patients are under way, the British Science Festival heard yesterday in Birmingham, after studies showed it could pick out people with Parkinson’s — a disease notoriously hard to diagnose — with up to 99% accuracy.

Max Little of Aston University, who is working on the technology with colleagues at Oxford University with funding from the charity Parkinson’s UK, said it could be used to diagnose Parkinson’s disease in people showing possible symptoms ­­and to monitor the progress of known patients.

“The doctor could really just give somebody a smartphone, say, ‘Put this in your pocket, wear it for a week, come back, the data will get uploaded to our servers and then we’ll have some objective information on which to base your diagnosis along with the other information from your medical history’,” he said.

Modern smartphones can record speech patterns with great precision, revealing small variations in voice. They also contain accelerometers, which can reveal abnormalities in the user’s movements. The combination of changes in voice and movement, analysed by computer algorithm, can show early signs of Parkinson’s.

Claire Bale, of Parkinson’s UK, said: “Smartphones offer huge potential as they continuously capture information and can monitor subtle changes, such as an increase or decrease in someone’s tremor.

“Arming doctors and people with Parkinson’s with this technology could revolutionise the way the condition is managed.”

One study is taking place at 11 hospitals in the Thames valley, where 900 patients have been recruited. The smartphone technology will be included in a more extensive investigation of ways to diagnose Parkinson’s before overt symptoms appear — which can be 10 to 15 years after the onset of subtle changes in the brain.

Study leader Michele Hu, a clinical neuroscientist at Oxford University, wants to identify future Parkinson’s patients during this early “pre-motor stage”.

This would benefit people, said Dr Little, “because even though there is no treatment for the underlying causes of Parkinson’s, there is likely to be a better outcome if you get to the disease early”.

People with Parkinson’s do not have enough of a brain chemical called dopamine, because the neurons producing it have died for unknown reasons. Its absence slows down movements and causes tremors and muscle stiffness.

About one person in every 500 has Parkinson’s, coming to 127,000 people in the UK. Most people who get the disease are aged 50 or over, but one in 20 is diagnosed under the age of 40.

Paul Wicks, a research neuropsychologist who collaborated with Dr Little, is now vice-president of innovation at PatientsLikeMe, a Boston company planning to commercialise smartphone health information.

“(Dr Little’s) system could be the data currency that underlies the entire ‘learning healthcare system’,” he said. ­– Financial Times 

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