Do you already have the key to diagnosing Parkinson’s disease?

Parkinson's disease

Are you wearing the means to detect Parkinson’s disease years before it becomes clinically diagnosed?

In a bit of left-of-field thinking, a group of UK scientists decided to monitor an everyday device and analyse the data generated. The findings have been described as “unprecedented”.

Scientists from Cardiff University published a study this week in Nature Medicine that analysed data from smartwatches against standard models based on genetics, lifestyle, blood chemistry and typical early symptoms.

The results found smartwatch data could diagnose Parkinson’s disease up to seven years before a normal clinical diagnosis.

The university’s Neuroscience and Mental Health Innovation Institute worked with the UK Dementia Research Institute and found that wearable tech that tracks accelerometery – the acceleration of motion – could identify people who are most likely to develop Parkinson’s disease.

Study co-author Dr Kathryn Peall said: “We know that as Parkinson’s disease develops, there are changes to the speed of movement, so we investigated whether accelerometery could work as a marker for Parkinson’s disease, and ultimately allow for earlier diagnosis.”

Computer analysis

The researchers found that computer analysis of accelerometery data gleaned from smartwatches could distinguish both patients already diagnosed with Parkinson’s and people in the early stages of the disease.

No other data in their research performed better than measuring accelerometery.

“To our knowledge, this is the first demonstration of the clinical value of accelerometery-based biomarkers for prodromal Parkinson’s disease in the general population,” Dr Peall said.

“Our results showed a prediagnosis reduction in acceleration was unique to Parkinson’s disease and was not observed for any other disorder that we examined.

“It suggests that accelerometery could be used to identify those at elevated risk for Parkinson’s disease on an unprecedented scale.

“In a clinical setting, continuous or semi-continuous monitoring of individuals can’t be achieved because of time, cost, accessibility and sensitivity.

“But smart devices capable of collecting accelerometer data are worn daily by millions of people.

“Devices such as activity trackers and smartwatches could play a key role in clinical monitoring.”

The study used participants from UK Biobank, a medical database containing in-depth genetic and health information on half a million UK residents.

Just over 100,000 Biobank participants were given smartwatches to record their activity for a week. Of that group, 273 already had a Parkinson’s diagnosis and since the study began, another 196 were diagnosed with Parkinson’s.

Valuable tool

Study co-author Cynthia Sandor told El Pais that Parkinson’s slow progression often made it hard to diagnose early.

“Affected people experience motor symptoms such as slow movement, stiffness, coordination difficulties and tremors,” she said.

“All these prodromes – signs that precede the disease – appear long before its diagnosis.

“However, the accelerometers, magnetometers and gyros in movement tracking devices and smartwatches can pick them up.”

Only a single week of captured data was needed to diagnose Parkinson’s.

“With these results, we could develop a valuable tool to help in the early detection of Parkinson’s disease,” Ms Sandor said.

According to BetterHealth, Parkinson’s disease is a progressive, degenerative neurological condition that affects a person’s control of their body movements.

Degenerating nerve cells in the brain cause a lack of dopamine, a chemical messenger necessary for smooth, controlled movements. Obvious symptoms appear when about 70 per cent of the dopamine-producing cells have stopped working normally.

Parkinson’s disease cannot be cured but the symptoms can be managed.

Do you wear a smartwatch? Would you like to know about an early Parkinson’s diagnosis? Why not share your opinion in the comments section below?

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Written by Jan Fisher

Accomplished journalist, feature writer and sub-editor with impressive knowledge of the retirement landscape, including retirement income, issues that affect Australians planning and living in retirement, and answering YLC members' Age Pension and Centrelink questions. She has also developed a passion for travel and lifestyle writing and is fast becoming a supermarket savings 'guru'.

4 Comments

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  1. I stopped most of my Parkinson’s disease medications due to severe side effects and I started on herbal treatments from Natural Herbs Centre (naturalherbscentre. com), the treatment has made a very huge difference for me. My symptoms including body weakness and Swallowing difficulties disappeared after few months on the treatment. I am getting active again since starting this treatment.

  2. What about people, like me, who have a familial dystonic tremor in my dominant hand? I have had this tremor for over 20 years, & medications seem to make it worse, as I get the side-effects before the good effects. Wouldn’t this movement skew the effects of the test, even though I have been assured it isn’t Parkinson’s?

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