Wearable Tech: The Hope for Those Suffering from Parkinson’s

For an estimated 6.1million people worldwide (The Lancet – Neurology), Parkinson is a potentially debilitating disease. For those of you not aware of Parkinson’s it is a disease caused by the breakdown of nerve cells in a part of your brain called the substantia nigra. This results in a reduction of the chemical dopamine in the brain. Dopamine plays a part in controlling the movements a person makes, as well as their emotional responses. The right balance of dopamine in human is vital for both physical and mental wellbeing.

The risk of developing Parkinson’s increases with age and as we face long life expectancies so to can we face an increased number of people being afflicted with the disease. Now whilst there is currently no cure for Parkinson’s there is the hope that wearable technology could help alleviate some of the symptoms caused by the disease. A small disclaimer though: none of the technologies we are outlining below is widely accepted as having any measurable effect and this article should in no way be taken as medical advice, advocacy for, nor an endorsement of any technology. All of the technologies we are showcasing are in the pilot study/trial phase and are promising as to the role wearables could play in the future of wearable medical tech. If you or a loved one have been affected by Parkinson’s we recommend that you speak to your doctor before using any wearable technology. 

First up is the PKG watch (The Parkinson’s KinetiGraph (PKG) is a groundbreaking medical device for the management of Parkinson’s Disease (PD)).

Now, this watch tackles an interesting nuance that maybe isn’t linked to the disease but more to a general weakness all of us humans have. That is, it is very difficult to give self-reflective data to a doctor in a way that is unbiased and without interpretation. Now what I mean by that is that traditionally a doctor isn’t with their patient 24 hours a day 7 days a week and as a result has to rely on their patient being cognisant and objective enough to tell a doctor exactly how they have been that week. This information can be crucial diagnostic information that lets a doctor know that their prescribed course of action is the correct one. This could be as simple as, how much have you been moving this week? Do you feel like your movement has slowed recently? How are you sleeping? Are you having difficulty performing daily tasks? This is also crucial symptomatic data that can help a doctor understand their patient and the progression of the disease that previously could only be self-reported. This is where the PKG watch comes in.

Along with being a fully functioning smartwatch that seamlessly and discretely blends in with the patient’s lifestyle, it also logs all of their movements throughout the day. Now I don’t mean some tin-foil hat style tracking device logging where they the wearers go; no it’s more tracking how they go.

The watch analyses their movements throughout the day and outputs a graph that allows the doctor to analyse and compare their movement speed, and overall capability to move throughout the day. Over time this paints a picture either of a patient degeneration that can afford the doctors a faster avenue to intervention or shows the efficacy of their medication and reassures the doctor that the prescription is working as it should. On top of that, it can be programmed by the doctor to provide the patient with notifications when their medication should be taken gently prompting them and keeping them to the regimen required to treat Parkinson’s. PKG is currently looking for Volunteers to trial their watch and our hope is that it proves to be invaluable both for people suffering and those who are treating them.

One of the most commonly associated and debilitating symptoms most commonly associated with Parkinson’s is the Tremors.

Tremors are the sometimes violent, involuntary, shakes that at their worst can make it impossible for people to function normally in day to day life. They are caused by the breakdown in the motor-neurons that control movement as a result of the progression of the disease. Tremors can be so severe that it is impossible for people with Parkinson’s to feed themselves. This is the problem that the GYENNO stabilising spoon is trying to tackle https://www.gyenno.com/spoon-en. A spoon that is already for sale on the market, it uses gyroscopic stabilisation, similar to that found in high-end cameras, to counteract the movement caused by the tremors to try to keep the spoon head level.

The device can counter tremors up to 2.7 inches in magnitude and can reduce them by up to 85%. The result is that users are able to feed themselves keeping their independence in this crucial aspect of life. The ability to remain independent is incredibly important in the elderly especially as it has an impact on their wellbeing and outlook, helps maintain mobility and strength, and gives people a sense of purpose. Removing one’s independence can cause a domino of effects such as muscular degeneration, leading to an increased likelihood in falling, leading to a loss in confidence, leading to more loss of mobility, leading to more muscular degeneration, increasing the likelihood of another fall. GYENNO has an amazing product that could help patients retain this core tenet of independence improving their quality of life drastically.

Balance and mobility are also two key areas deeply affected by Parkinson’s. Due to the progressive nature of the disease the longer you have it the worse your mobility deteriorates. This means that 60% of people who have Parkinson’s will have a fall and two-thirds of those people will experience another fall.

To tackle this a team in the University of Houston is developing a belt that is worn by patients that can coach users through their rehabilitation by using vibrating actuators. By recording the user’s motion and sending that to a smartphone app the app can analyse their gait, and by looking at how the user is moving can create a treatment plan personalised to the patient. The belt has vibrating actuators that act like a physiotherapist ‘guiding’ them with light touches helping them to adjust how they are moving and to build back their strength and mobility.

The belt isn’t designed to replace a physiotherapist but is rather to make up for a lack of access to clinics. This may be because a person is not well enough to attend a clinic themselves, or because there simply aren’t specialist clinics available in the area. The device isn’t able to purchase yet but the team hopes that they are able to make it commercially available soon.

Here at Detekt, we are blown away by anyone who is dedicating their time to treating this disease from Doctors and researchers to scientists and designers hoping to improve the lives of patients but more importantly, we’re blown away by the strength shown by Parkinson’s patients the world over. We hope that some of these technologies, or indeed ones to come prove to make deep and meaningful impacts on the lives of those who are suffering daily.