Parkinson’s disease stages monitored with smartwatches

Research suggests that widely used smartwatches could be used to monitor Parkinson’s disease stages in patients.

Wearable technologies could be leveraged to measure the progression of Parkinson’s disease and other neurodegenerative disorders, expediting new treatments for people with the condition.

This is critical for patient outcomes, as there are currently no existing drugs to slow the disease’s progression.

The study, performed by the University of Rochester Medical Center, found that a common Apple Watch paired with an iPhone can detect changes in Parkinson’s disease symptoms in individuals in the early stages of the disease.

Jamie Adams, MD, lead author of the study, explained: “Digital measures hold the promise to provide objective, sensitive, real-world measures of disease progression in Parkinson’s disease.

“This study shows that data generated by smartwatches and smartphones can remotely monitor and detect changes in multiple domains of the disease. These digital assessments could help evaluate the efficacy of future therapies.”

What is Parkinson’s disease?

Parkinson’s disease is a progressive neurological disorder primarily affecting movement control. It is characterised by the degeneration of dopamine-producing neurons in a region of the brain critical for regulating movement.

The decrease in dopamine levels leads to symptoms that typically worsen over time. Parkinson’s disease has no cure, but treatments can help manage its symptoms.

There are five Parkinson’s disease stages, as described by the Hoehn and Yahr scale:

  • Stage 1: This is the earliest stage where symptoms are mild and usually affect only one side of the body. Common signs include tremors, slight changes in posture, facial expressions, and walking.
  • Stage 2: Symptoms begin to worsen and affect both sides of the body. Tremors, rigidity, and movement difficulties become more noticeable. Daily tasks may take longer, and patients may experience changes in facial expressions and speech. However, balance is still maintained, and patients can live independently.
  • Stage 3: This stage marks the progression to mid-stage Parkinson’s. Loss of balance and slower movements are significant features. Patients may experience frequent falls due to impaired reflexes. While individuals can still perform daily activities, they require more assistance and may struggle with tasks like dressing and eating.
  • Stage 4: Symptoms are severe and disabling. While patients may still be able to walk or stand unassisted, they require substantial help with daily activities. Movement becomes increasingly limited, and patients may need assistance with personal care.
  • Stage 5: This is the most advanced stage. Patients may be unable to stand or walk and typically require a wheelchair or are bedridden. Full-time care is necessary, as patients are unable to perform daily activities independently. Cognitive issues, such as dementia, may also develop at this stage.

The speed of progression through the five Parkinson’s disease stages varies among individuals, and the rate of progression can be influenced by factors such as age, overall health, and the effectiveness of treatments.

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Current monitoring limitations

Traditional tools to measure the progression of Parkinson’s disease are subjective and collect information during clinical visits.

This means the tools do not accurately reflect the day-to-day symptoms of the patients, potentially slowing the development of new therapies.

Alternatively, smartwatches can passively monitor an array of Parkinson’s disease symptoms, such as gait and tremors.

Additionally, information can be collected through finger-tapping tasks and voice recordings to measure speech-related symptoms.

Testing the potential of smartwatches

In the WATCH-PD study, researchers tracked early-stage Parkinson’s patients for 12 months.

Data from devices revealed significant declines in gait, increased tremors, and minor speech changes. The smartwatch detected reduced arm swing and recorded daily step counts, aligning with other long-term studies of the disease.

The study aimed to replicate a multi-centre clinical trial involving early, untreated Parkinson’s patients, with contributions from the pharmaceutical industry, regulators, researchers, and patients.

Supported by the Michael J. Fox Foundation, the WATCH-PD study has been extended for an additional 18 months.

Adams added: “This study brings us closer to having meaningful digital measures for future use in Parkinson’s clinical trials, which may speed up therapeutic development and get treatments to our patients faster.”

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