The hands of a man with Parkinson's disease tremble. Strongly trembling hands of an older man
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Researchers from the University of Rochester Medical Center report in the journal npj Parkinson’s Disease that they have used a smartwatch paired with a mobile phone to detect and map disease progression in early Parkinson’s disease. Collecting these data via everyday consumer devices to develop a better understanding of disease progression of neurological disorders is an increasingly vital tool informing the development and approval of new therapies.

“Digital measures hold the promise to provide objective, sensitive, real-world measures of disease progression in Parkinson’s disease,” said the study’s lead author Jamie Adams, MD, an associate professor of neurology at the University of Rochester Medical Center. “This study shows that data generated by smartwatches and smartphones can remotely monitor and detect changes in multiple domains of the disease. These digital assessments could help evaluate the efficacy of future therapies.”

In the new study, known as WATCH-PD, the investigators followed people with early-stage Parkinson’s disease for 12 months to collect digital data via mobile devices. Over the course of the study the researchers showed, from the data collected, that these early Parkinson’s patients showed significant declines in measures of their gait, increases in tremors, along with more modest changes in their speech.

The smartwatches were able to detect one of the common clinical features of Parkinson’s such as decreases in arm swing and daily activity as measured by steps taken. Detection of these symptoms in participants meshed with other long-term studies of Parkinson’s progression.

WATCH-PD has now been extended for an additional 18 months with support from the Michael J. Fox Foundation and has also involved participation from multiple stakeholders including pharmaceutical companies, industry regulators, researchers, and people living with Parkinson’s disease.

“The early and often feedback from regulators have shaped this study in ways that now can link the clinical meaningfulness of symptoms measured by digital health technologies to the voice of people with lived experience,” said Diane Stephenson, PhD, executive director of Critical Path for Parkinson’s consortium and co-author of the study. “By partnering with patients, regulators, industry, and academic experts this project is serving as a precedent for other disease areas to follow.”

Parkinson’s disease is complex with an onset and severity of symptoms, and symptom progression varying widely from patient to patient. To date, most of the traditional tools used to track the disease are often subjective. Furthermore, information on symptoms are collected only episodically through patient visits with their doctors.

Digital technologies, however, such as smartphones and smart watches can passively and continuously monitor patients for changes in such indicative symptoms as gait and tremor. They can also collect additional information on progression of symptoms from tasks such as finger tapping or recording a patient’s voice to detect changes in speech patterns. Early work by Adams’ team has also shown that using this mobile digital devices can discern differences between people with early, untreated Parkinson’s and age-matched controls.

The researchers point to the possibility that their ongoing work can help spur new treatments and treatment strategies for patients with Parkinson’s disease.

“Therapeutic progress for Parkinson’s disease has been slow, which has fueled interest in the development of more objective, precise, sensitive, and frequent measures of the disease that can be assessed in the real-world,” the study authors wrote. “Digital tools, including smartwatches, smartphones, and wearable sensors offer the potential to provide such assessments.”

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