Can a Wearable Computer Help Treat Parkinson’s?

It’s been nearly two hundred years since the English physician James Parkinson penned “An Essay on the Shaking Palsy,” laying down for all time the first published description of what came to be known as Parkinson’s disease.

And in that time, though medicines have come to help treat the symptoms of the disease, the tools used for quantifying symptoms remain essentially the same: Subjective notes often scribbled in a patient’s own diary.

Time for a change, you say? Yeah, we think so too. And so does the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, and so, apparently, does Intel. They’re partnering to develop a wearable computer to assess symptoms of the disease. Neat, eh?

This announcement comes on the tail of previous collaborative studies which were done to test the efficacy of wearable devices like the one currently in development. Learning which variables to instruct the computer to keep track of—which eye movements, which sleep patterns, what kinds of tremors—was the real challenge for researchers as they sought to “teach” a device how to measure the disease.

Then Intel stepped in to look at the data points collected and correlate it to clinical observations and patient diaries, which served to gauge the accuracy of the devices. Over time, the team plans to develop algorithms to track disease progression, as well.

Both Intel and MJFF have committed themselves to providing open access to data: A selfless move intended to downplay personal gain in favor of making as much progress toward a cure as possible. They are making all the data they collect from these studies available to other researchers and doctors, and encourage those working in the Parkinson’s research community to do the same.

The MJFF seems to have a lot of irons in the fire right now. It’s been reaching out and making connections all through the world of philanthropy and research, both on this side of the border and in Canada (see MJFF’s collaboration with the emerging Weston Brain Institute).

That’s pretty good for an organization that was only founded in 1998. And while it’s primarily been an advocacy organization, as so many of these celebrity-led organizations are, there’s no discrediting the real role the MJFF continues to have in pioneering research.