Time-tellers turned health-tellers: how smartwatches could spot Parkinson’s early

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Wrist watches, once just a tool to keep time, have now become high-tech devices that could save lives.

As per recent research, smartwatches might be able to identify Parkinson’s disease up to seven years before traditional symptoms make themselves known and a clinical diagnosis can be made.

The brains behind this breakthrough are scientists at the UK Dementia Research Institute and the Neuroscience and Mental Health Innovation Institute at Cardiff University.

They shared their findings in the journal Nature Medicine on July 3. They used smartwatches to gather data over a week, analyzing participants’ speed of movement.

With the help of artificial intelligence (AI), they were able to correctly predict those who would later develop Parkinson’s disease.

What is Parkinson’s Disease?

Parkinson’s disease is a neurological disorder that affects specific brain cells called dopaminergic neurons, found in the substantia nigra part of the brain.

It messes with motor functions, causing tremors, stiffness, and slow movements. The tricky part is that by the time these symptoms show up and Parkinson’s can be diagnosed, over half of the affected brain cells have already died.

This makes it incredibly important to have low-cost, reliable methods to spot early changes and intervene before the disease wreaks havoc on the brain.

How Did the Study Work?

The research involved analyzing data from 103,712 UK Biobank participants who wore a medical-grade smartwatch for seven days between 2013 and 2016.

These watches kept track of the participants’ speed of movement over this period.

The scientists compared data from people who were already diagnosed with Parkinson’s to those who were diagnosed up to seven years after the smartwatch data was collected.

They also compared this data to healthy individuals of the same age and sex.

The Findings

The AI model used in this study managed to identify participants who would develop Parkinson’s later, using only their smartwatch data.

These participants could be distinguished from the healthy controls. Even better, the AI model was able to spot those who would develop Parkinson’s in the general population.

This method proved to be more accurate than any other risk factor or early sign of the disease in predicting Parkinson’s. The model was also good at predicting when the diagnosis would be made.

The Limitations

Like all studies, this one also has its limitations. There’s a lack of replication using other data sources, as there aren’t any comparable data sets for similar analysis.

The researchers performed extensive evaluations to counter any biases.

The Implications

Study leader Dr. Cynthia Sandor noted, “Smartwatch data is easy to get and cheap. As of 2020, around 30% of the UK population wears smartwatches.

Using this data, we might be able to spot Parkinson’s disease in its early stages in the general population.

Dr. Kathryn Peall added, “Diagnosing Parkinson’s early is challenging because many affected brain cells are already lost by the time symptoms appear.

Our findings could offer a useful screening tool to catch the disease early. This could allow patients to access treatments before the disease causes major damage to the brain.”

The promising study results suggest that smartwatches could be an effective tool for early Parkinson’s detection. It’s like having a mini-doctor on your wrist, helping ensure your health is on time, every time.

If you care about Parkinson’s disease, please read studies that Vitamin B may slow down cognitive decline, and Mediterranean diet could help lower risk of Parkinson’s disease.

For more information about brain health, please see recent studies that blueberry supplements may prevent cognitive decline, and results showing Plant-based diets could protect cognitive health from air pollution.

The study was published in Nature Medicine. Follow us on Twitter for more articles about this topic.

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