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New research reports that smartwatches and smartphones could be used to detect Parkinson’s symptoms in the early stages of the disease. Belinda Howell/Getty Images
  • More than 10 million people around the world have Parkinson’s disease, a neurodegenerative condition that currently has no cure.
  • Early signs of Parkinson’s disease differ from person to person and may be hard to diagnose.
  • New research reports that everyday smartwatches and smartphones could be used to measure changes in Parkinson’s symptoms over time in people in the early stages of the disease.

More than 10 million people globally have Parkinson’s disease — a neurological condition that affects a person’s ability to move.

There is currently no cure for Parkinson’s disease. Early signs of Parkinson’s disease vary from person to person and may be difficult to diagnose. For this reason, scientists are constantly exploring ways to diagnose the condition in its earliest stages.

One such group of researchers hails from the University of Rochester Medical Center. In their new study, they report that everyday smartwatches and smartphones — in this case, an Apple Watch paired with an app on an iPhone — could potentially be used to measure changes in Parkinson’s symptoms over time in people with early-stage Parkinson’s disease.

The findings were published in npj Parkinson’s Disease, a Nature publication.

This research was done as part of a study called WATCH-PD, which included 82 adults with early, untreated Parkinson’s disease and 50 age-matched controls.

Scientists collected data from participants using three devices: research-grade wearable “Opal” sensors, an Apple Watch 4 or 5, and an iPhone 10 or 11 with an application specifically for Parkinson’s disease called BrainBaseline.

According to lead study author Jamie Adams, MD, associate professor of neurology at the University of Rochester Medical Center, the Center for Health + Technology, the researchers chose to study smartwatches to monitor Parkinson’s disease progression because smartwatches and smartphones are accessible and user-friendly with many people already having these devices. Adams shared the following with Medical News Today:

“This makes them scalable and appealing for wide use. The technology is able to collect both active measures like finger tapping and passive measures like everyday step counts, gait speed, or proportion of time with tremors. We are learning more and more about best practices for digital monitoring in clinical trials and how to analyze and interpret digital data, and the WATCH-PD study has been a key contributor to this knowledge.”

During the study, participants were followed for 12 months and data was collected on how their early Parkinson’s disease symptoms changed over time.

The BrainBaseline iPhone app provided cognitive, speech, and psychomotor tasks to help test things like reading, speech, and fine motor skills.

“Many devices have the ability to collect similar data,” Adams explained when asked how the smartwatch and smartphone in their study worked.

“Some devices collect raw data that needs to be processed and analyzed by researchers after the collection to provide more meaningful measures like step counts or proportion of time with tremor. Other devices collect the raw data and also have applications that provide some measures. The Apple Watch has a movement disorders application that provides data on tremors and dyskinesias, which are symptoms experienced in Parkinson’s disease,” Adams continued.

This is not the first study to use a smartwatch or other wearable device for Parkinson’s disease.

A 2023 study reported that smartwatches may help detect Parkinson’s disease up to seven years before symptoms appear. And a 2021 study found that a smartwatch and smartphone monitoring system could capture changes and improvements in Parkinson’s disease symptoms when wearers received doctor-derived therapy changes.

At the study’s conclusion, researchers found that participant data collected through a smartwatch detected symptoms of Parkinson’s, including significant declines in measures of gait, an increase in tremors, modest changes in speech, and decreases in arm swing.

“Our findings showed that the smartwatch and smartphone application were able to objectively detect changes in gait and tremor over one year in people with early Parkinson’s disease,” Adams explained.

“The early Parkinson’s population is of interest for potential disease-modifying therapies. However, the disease progresses slowly, and our traditional measures are episodic and subjective and may not reflect an individual’s true state. Digital measures, in addition to advances in machine learning and AI, are poised to help us detect subtle changes in progression and help determine whether therapies, which are desperately needed in Parkinson’s disease, are working,” she continued.

“Parkinson’s disease is the fastest-growing neurologic disease. We currently do not have any medications to cure or slow the progression of the disease. Identifying objective, sensitive, and meaningful measures of disease progression will hopefully allow us to find treatments faster.”

— Jamie Adams, MD, lead study author

Adams said digital measures must be sensitive to change and meaningful to people with the disease in order to be used as monitoring endpoints in clinical trials.

“A remote extension of this study using the smartwatch and smartphone application with remote visits has been generously funded by the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research and is underway,” she detailed.

“We will be analyzing the data for changes in the digital measures over three years and try to identify digital signals that are sensitive to or even predict medication initiation, and also conducting qualitative work to evaluate which measures are most meaningful to people with Parkinson’s and how that may change over time.”

“There is a lot of excitement for digital measures in Parkinson’s disease, but still much work to be done including continued algorithm development, refinement, and validation,” Adams added.

“This requires multi-stakeholder involvement, collaboration, and commitment including industry, academia, regulators, and most importantly, patients — this type of multi-stakeholder input has been present in WATCH-PD and is a key reason for the study’s success.”

After reviewing this study, Hooman Azmi, MD, director of the Division of Functional and Restorative Neurosurgery at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey, told MNT the study harnesses wearable technology to assess the symptoms of Parkinson’s.

“While (the) use of wearables to assess Parkinson’s symptoms has been done before, this study is a larger scale study, looking at the ability of wearables to assess the progression of Parkinson’s compared to healthy controls,” Azmi said.

“It is important as it demonstrates the ability to continuously assess patients, and allows more information for the neurologist to better understand how their treatments are affecting the patient, not just during a visit in the office, but in between visits and on a continuous basis. This will help neurologists be able to better manage symptoms of Parkinson’s,” he added.

“It is important to understand how Parkinson’s progresses to be able to better diagnose and treat the disorder. Currently, our only and best way of diagnosis is a physical examination, looking at certain characteristics of a movement as well as symptomatic complaints of patients to diagnose them and to assess the response to medication. It is believed that by the time symptoms can be picked (and) identified in patients, degenerative changes have been going on in the brain for quite some time, possibly even over a decade, and being able to identify disease markers earlier will be important when we have agents that can slow down the disease or reverse it. We don’t have any such agents at the present time, but there is hope that we will have these in the not-so-distant future.”

— Hooman Azmi, MD, neurosurgeon