A team of researchers from Birkbeck, University of London is developing apps and wearable technology to gather data from patients with Parkinson’s disease (PD) to inform future treatments.

The Michael J. Fox Foundation (MJFF), the world’s largest non-profit funder of Parkinson’s research, awarded a £100,000 grant to the team led by Professor George Roussos to develop technology that records a patient’s motor symptoms of PD, including tremors, rigidity and posture instability. The grant will be used to develop a ‘software toolkit’ that will be used to analyse data, including that which is collected by Roussos’ app, cloudUPDRS.

The app was released in 2013 and is being clinically trialled at University College London Hospitals. It allows users to perform various motor functions and record their data. They can tap the screen to assess speed of movement, or hold the phone on their knees to measure tremors. This data is used to place the patient on the UPDRS (Unified Parkinson’s Disease Rating Scale), which asks patients to place themselves on numerical scales in response to questions covering their motor- and non-motor skills. The UPDRS then totals each patient’s responses to assess their severity of PD as a number.

The project aims to integrate assessment of a patient’s motor symptoms into their daily schedule, allowing measurements to be taken regularly and without intrusion but still adhering to a high clinical standard.

“Our focus is on clinical tools and clinical validation and being able to make strong claims of effectiveness while at the same time offering a suitable patient experience,” said Roussos. “Achieving this trade-off is a major challenge and the main challenge in our work.

“The level of evidence required for declaring a clinical tool as safe and effective is orders of magnitude greater than what we usually use to validate software,” he continued. “It also takes a lot longer to collect the evidence, a clinical study would the months or years rather than weeks.”

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Roussos also spoke of the potential for Internet of Things devices, such as Amazon’s Alexa, in healthcare: “Voice services would assist with reminders or recoding patient diaries, which are also useful, and may coordinate with body sensors and smartphones.” However, he pointed out that ‘the core assessments for Parkinson’s require the observation of patient movement’, ensuring that wearable technology will have the most direct impact on data collection and patient treatment.

The MJFF was impressed by the range of data that Roussous and his team would be able to collect through the integration of technology.

“An open-source computational toolbox could help validate meaningful disease insights from data collected on wearable devices and speed urgently needed breakthroughs for millions of people with Parkinson’s,” said Mark Fraiser, senior vice president of research programmes at the MJFF.