An Oxford University researcher and her team showed that digital wearable devices can track the progression of Parkinson’s disease in an individual more effectively than human clinical observation can, according to a newly published paper.
By tracking more than 100 metrics picked up by the devices, researchers were able to discern subtle changes in the movements of subjects with Parkinson’s, a neurodegenerative disease that afflicts 10 million people worldwide.
The lead researcher emphasized that the latest findings were not a treatment for Parkinson’s. Rather, they are a means of helping scientists gauge whether novel drugs and other therapies for Parkinson’s are slowing the progression of the disease.
The sensors — six per subject, worn on the chest, at the base of the spine and one on each wrist and foot — tracked 122 physiological metrics. Several dozen metrics stood out as closely indicating the disease’s progression, including the direction a toe moved during a step and the length and regularity of strides.
“We have the biomarker,” said Chrystalina Antoniades, a neuroscientist at the University of Oxford and the lead researcher on the paper, which was published earlier this month in the journal npj Parkinson’s Disease. “It’s super exciting. Now we hope to be able to tell you: Is a drug working?”
Until now, Dr. Antoniades said, drug trials for Parkinson’s had relied on clinical assessment of whether a treatment was slowing the progression of the disease. But clinical observation can miss changes that happen day to day or that might not show up clearly in periodic visits to a doctor, she added.
In the paper, the study’s authors concluded that the sensors proved more effective at tracking the disease progression “than the conventionally used clinical rating scales.”
What It Looks Like
To capture the wearer’s various movements, the sensors employed technologies, including accelerometers and gyroscopes, that have become increasingly common in digital watches and smartphones. Together, these devices can measure a person’s direction, gait, regularity of movement and more.
After the results were published, Dr. Antoniades and her team were flooded with messages from colleagues and media outlets asking whether they had found a cure for Parkinson’s. She said she wanted to be clear that the advance, while important, was a tool that could hasten the development of treatments for the disease, but that it was not the answer to it.
Dr. Antoniades said she was optimistic about the possibility of using such sensors to track other illnesses, perhaps even Alzheimer’s — a “plethora of diseases that bring together bioengineering, clinical science and movement science.”
Human doctors will remain a vital part of the process, she added, with sensors complementing the observations of clinicians. The hope, Dr. Antoniades said, “is this will enhance the ability of your doctor to get it right.”