Study suggests smartwatches may contribute to Parkinson’s disease detection

**Smartwatches: Potential for Early Parkinson’s Disease Diagnosis**


Smartwatches made by Apple, Google, and Garmin have gained popularity among fitness-conscious consumers. These wearable devices not only help users keep track of their fitness metrics but now researchers have discovered that they could also aid in the early diagnosis of neurodegenerative movement disease, Parkinson’s. Parkinson’s is a disease that is challenging to diagnose as its symptoms develop slowly over time. However, a team of scientists at Wales’s Cardiff University believes they have found a breakthrough by analyzing smartwatch data to identify early signs of Parkinson’s disease.

**Accelerometry-Based Diagnosis**

Accelerometry, the measure of motion acceleration, has been utilized by the researchers at Cardiff University’s Neuroscience and Mental Health Innovation Institute (NMHII) and the U.K. Dementia Research Institute. The team used artificial intelligence models to study the accelerometry data of 103,712 smartwatch wearers. By monitoring the speed of motion over the span of a week, the computer programs were able to identify both diagnosed Parkinson’s patients and individuals who were in the early stages of the disease but had not yet been diagnosed. The researchers were even able to predict when a clinical diagnosis would be made, sometimes up to seven years in advance.

Dr. Kathryn Peall, Clinical Senior Lecturer in the NMHII, explains that Parkinson’s disease is caused by the loss of brain cells that use dopamine. By the time of clinical diagnosis, a significant loss of brain cells has already occurred, which makes early diagnosis difficult. However, changes in the speed of movement can be observed as Parkinson’s disease progresses. Therefore, accelerometry data from smartwatches was investigated as a potential early marker for the disease and a means for earlier diagnosis.

**An Unprecedented Discovery**

According to research from Statista, the number of smartwatch users is expected to reach 210 million this year, with projections of nearly 230 million users by 2027. Combining this consumer demand with scientific insight has the potential to be a game-changer. Dr. Cynthia Sandor of Cardiff University’s Dementia Research Institute highlights the unique insights provided by accelerometry data for Parkinson’s disease compared to other disorders. The study results were so distinct that they could not be confused with other diseases or attributed to the aging process. Dr. Sandor suggests that accelerometry has the potential to identify individuals at an elevated risk for Parkinson’s disease on an unprecedented scale.

**What’s Next?**

While the discovery of using smartwatches for early Parkinson’s disease diagnosis is significant, the researchers urge for further research. The study was conducted using data solely from the UK Biobank, an extensive health database, as it was the only dataset large enough to run the computer programs. Bias in medical research, particularly in relation to artificial intelligence models, has been a concern highlighted by the World Health Organization (WHO). The organization emphasizes the importance of transparency, inclusion, public engagement, expert supervision, and rigorous evaluation in the appropriate use of technologies like AI models.

The scientists behind the Parkinson’s study encourage other researchers to build upon their findings by addressing the limitations of their work. They believe that wearables and health-sensor devices have the potential to lead medicine into a digital health era, improving healthcare, reducing costs, and increasing accessibility.

In conclusion, the application of smartwatches in early Parkinson’s disease diagnosis brings hope for improved quality of life for patients. The ability to identify the disease at an earlier stage can provide opportunities for timely interventions and treatments. However, further research and addressing potential biases are essential in order to fully embrace the potential of wearable technologies in healthcare.

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