Why Intel And The Michael J. Fox Foundation Are Teaming Up To Create Wearable Tech For Parkinson's

The same technology behind Fitbits and smartwatches could make life much easier for those with Parkinson's disease.

The quantified-self movement--and the idea of wearing fitness sensors such as the Fitbit--are good for more than just building exercise regimes. They also holds potential for improving the quality of life of Parkinson’s patients.

This week, Intel and the Michael J. Fox Foundation announced the development of sensor technology and analytics platforms for Parkinson’s treatment and monitoring. Ex-Intel CEO Andy Grove, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2000 and is interested in big data’s medical research potential, is largely responsible for the partnership.

Intel and the Fox Foundation’s relationship rests on the fact that the sharply decreasing cost of cloud computing means it’s easier than ever to conduct research on massive data sets, and equipping Parkinson’s patients with Fitibit-like sensors constantly emitting data is an easy way to create those data sets. Intel will run an analytics platform built around Cloudera CDH, which will detect patterns in aggregated data coming in from sensor-wearing users. Participating patients wear devices 24 hours a day, emitting more than 200 data points per second. Because Parkinson’s symptoms vary so wildly from patient to patient, the hope is that aggregating patients’ movements and activities will give medical researchers insight that traditional studies don’t.

“The big thing we're focused on in the project is trying to get much more fine-tuned and objective data on the symptoms of Parkinson’s,” Fox Foundation CEO Todd Sherer told Fast Company. ”Parkinson’s is a motor disorder for the most part, with slowness of movement, tremors, falls, problems sleeping, and many disease symptoms. The way it is measured right now requires episodic periodic visits to a neurologist, who puts patients through fairly subjective and coarse clinical tests--there are many 1-2-3-4 scales. What we need to advance is research that is a much more consistent and objective measure of the disease. People live with Parkinson’s 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, not just when they're in the doctor’s office.”

The first phase of the partnership was a study earlier this year in which 16 Parkinson’s patients and nine control volunteers wore the devices continuously over four days and at two clinic visits. Handwritten diaries were also kept by participants during that time. The idea, Intel and the Fox Foundation say, is that wearable devices could give better information than handwritten patient diaries. In the second phase of the partnership, which is taking place now, data scientists at Intel are correlating the sensor data sets to clinical observations and patient diaries to gauge if the devices work. They will then use the data sets to help build algorithms to track the symptoms and progress of Parkinson’s disease.

"The variability in Parkinson's symptoms creates unique challenges in monitoring progression of the disease," Diane Bryant, senior vice president of Intel's Data Center Group, said in a release. "Emerging technologies can not only create a new paradigm for measurement of Parkinson's, but as more data is made available to the medical community, it may also point to currently unidentified features of the disease that could lead to new areas of research."

Later this year, Intel is expected to unveil a mobile application with the Fox Foundation which lets patients report their medication intake. This will let data scientists at Intel research changes in physical symptoms caused by changes in medication. A 2013 medical devices report from the Brookings Institution says that wearable devices have the potential to change treatment for heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.

[Images courtesy of Intel]

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