Using wearables to tackle Parkinson's

From the mHealthNews archive
By Eric Wicklund

The common method for diagnosing Parkinson's disease is a 60-question test, with answers rated on a scale of 1 to 5. "Pass" the test, and you've got Parkinson's

mHealth is going to change that.

Intel and the Michael J. Fox Foundation are joining forces on a project to collect and analyze data from Parkinson's patients through wearable devices – more specifically, a Pebble watch. The idea is that a wrist-borne monitor will give researchers more insight to the debilitating disease than any Q&A.

"The lesson here is you simply cannot manage what you cannot measure," Ken Kubota, director of data science for the Michael J. Fox Foundation, told an audience at this week's mHealth Summit outside Washington D.C. 

[Learn more about the 2015 mHealth Summit.]

The project is tailored to measure the activity level of Parkinson's patients, as well as medication intake, tremors and sleep patterns. Funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and supported by Boston's Partners Healthcare, it's one of six projects around the world designed to use activity-based monitors to get a better handle on how Parkinson's patients deal with the disease on a daily basis.

Roughly 5 million people around the world suffer from Parkinson's, and 1 million of them are in the United States – including Intel chief Andrew Grove, who enlisted Kubota after meeting him at a dinner party. Kubota, then a systems engineer for Microsoft, worked with Intel's Shahar Cohen and Eric Dishman to develop a cloud-based solution that they hope will eventually be used for other disease conditions.

The idea of using a wrist monitor came about, Kubota said, after the group first designed a motor test battery that helped Parkinson's patients measure their daily activities. That battery, however, was bulky, and cost roughly $3,500 per unit.

"We needed a better way to collect, analyze and use data" from Parkinson's patients, Cohen said. So the group developed a wearable device that would instantaneously send data to the cloud through a smartphone app.

The key, said Kubota, was in taking a consumer-facing device and tailoring it for a clinical study without losing the functions that appeal to the user. It's a dilemma facing many healthcare providera who want to find innovative ways to put the latest Fitbit, Jawbone or Apple Watch to clinical use.

Kubota and Cohen said the Parkinson's study could someday lead to the development of better wearable monitors for patients with Parkinson's and other diseases, enabling them to go about their daily routines while keeping in touch with their care providers – and giving researchers reams of information that would be used for better diagnosis and treatment plans. Even further down the road, Kubota envisioned an implantable device that would replace the wearable.

And that, he said, would be better than any questionnaire.