Parkinson’s disease and other degenerative motor system disorders are notoriously difficult to diagnose accurately. But now, new research has resulted in a new application that enables smartphones to act as a “pocket doctor,” spotting early signs of the disease by measuring slight changes in speech and movement.

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“This new kind of remote data analysis will help patients to monitor their conditions on a minute-by-minute basis from the comfort of their own homes,” says Dr. Little.

The app was presented yesterday at the British Science Festival in Birmingham, UK, by Dr. Max Little of Aston University’s Nonlinearity and Complexity Research Group.

More and more, smartphones are being used as a medical diagnostic tool for treating or diagnosing various conditions.

For example, a smartphone portable eye testing kit is being used to revolutionize eye care in poorer nations. And a smartphone case has been developed that can measure key vital signs.

The reason Parkinson’s disease (PD) is so difficult to diagnose is that there are currently no blood or laboratory tests available to detect sporadic PD. As such, the diagnosis is often based on medical history and a neurological examination, and doctors may sometimes perform brain scans or lab tests to rule out other diseases.

The main symptoms of the condition include tremor, rigidity or stiffness of the limbs and trunk, slowness of movement, and postural instability or impaired balance and coordination.

In order to glean information about how PD symptoms change in people on an hourly basis, Dr. Little and his team have used the latest advances in smartphone technology.

He explains:

”This new kind of remote data analysis will help patients to monitor their conditions on a minute-by-minute basis from the comfort of their own homes. Of course, it is still important that they receive regular advice and treatment from medical professionals, who may also benefit from this new technology.”

Dr. Little adds that physicians could also use the data from their patients’ smartphones to prescribe medications to help with neurodegenerative diseases.

In one of their studies, Dr. Little and his team asked patients with PD to wear the smartphones with the app so they could collect data on how they moved, how often the spoke to others and how their voices changed over time.

Fast facts about Parkinson’s disease
  • PD is the result of the loss of dopamine-producing brain cells
  • It usually affects people over the age of 50
  • There is currently no cure for the disease, but many medications can provide relief from the symptoms.

Recording information every 20 microseconds, the researchers were able to gather an extensive amount of data, which they say could potentially help in examining people who are susceptible to developing PD.

“The condition is hard to diagnose,” says Dr. Little, “with specialists having to take a detailed history of peoples’ symptoms and analyzing them for physical signs of the disease. Using smartphone data may help to make this process much easier.”

His earlier research detected voice pattern differences between people with and without the condition, and in a small study, he and his team found that accuracy of detecting the disease was nearly 99%.

Currently, the team is rendering the technology and collected data into a mobile format to provide daily analysis and feedback, and are testing the app in a group of 2,500 individuals at the University of Oxford. They are also analyzing rare genetic conditions, such as Friedrich’s Ataxia, which causes muscle weakness, loss of speech and hearing.

Medical News Today recently reported on a smartphone app that could simplify diagnosis of hereditary diseases such as cystic fibrosis and Huntington’s disease.