A new study suggests that smartwatches could detect Parkinson’s disease as early as seven years ahead of symptoms.
A new study conducted at Cardiff University suggests that smartwatches could detect Parkinson’s disease several years ahead of symptoms.
This offers hope in the fight against the world’s fastest-growing neurological condition, as currently, early detection and treatment are difficult.
Parkinson’s disease – the fastest-growing neurological condition in the world
Parkinson’s disease is caused by a loss of nerve cells in the substantia nigra – part of the midbrain that produces dopamine. The loss of nerve cells, then, reduces the levels of dopamine in the brain.
Dopamine is vital for the regulation of movement in the body, and the lack thereof is responsible for the three main symptoms of Parkinson’s: tremors, slow movement, and stiff, inflexible muscles.
As dopamine also plays an important role in the body’s reward system, people with Parkinson’s may also experience psychological symptoms, such as depression, anxiety, memory loss, and insomnia. The cause of the loss of nerve cells remains unclear.
Approximately 145,000 people in the UK live with Parkinson’s, while the charity Parkinson’s UK estimates that one in 37 people will be diagnosed with the disease in their lifetime. This makes it the fastest-growing neurological condition in the world.
Smartwatches – the future of Parkinson’s screening?
The study, led by scientists at Cardiff University’s UK Dementia Research Institute, collected data from 103,712 people who wore a smartwatch during a seven-day period between 2013 and 2016.
Using the smartwatches’ artificial intelligence (AI), researchers analysed each participant’s average speed of movement before comparing the data with that of a group of people with Parkinson’s diagnoses.
The AI model was then able to predict which participants would go on to develop the disease and estimate a timescale for diagnosis. Researchers hope that this could see the use of smartwatches as a screening tool for Parkinson’s in the future.
Early treatment – critical for Parkinson’s patients
Early diagnosis, and therefore early treatment, is difficult in Parkinson’s cases. Patients often don’t receive a diagnosis until symptoms present, which is too late: by this stage, an estimated half of the cells in the substantia nigra will have died.
Researcher Dr Cynthia Sandor hopes that the use of smartwatches as a screening tool will lead to earlier diagnoses of Parkinson’s, which in turn should mean more effective treatment.
Dr Sandor added, “This has implications both for research, in improving recruitment into clinical trials; and in clinical practice, in allowing patients to access treatments at an earlier stage, in future when such treatments become available”.
Co-researcher Dr Kathryn Peall was quick to stress that the study’s findings “are not intended to replace existing methods of diagnosis”.
However, Dr Peall is optimistic that “as new treatments hopefully begin to emerge, people will be able to access them before the disease causes extensive damage to the brain”.
The study was published in the journal Nature Medicine.