Smartphone ‘scores’ can help doctors track severity of Parkinson’s disease symptoms

April 9, 2018

Parkinson’s disease, a progressive brain disorder, is often tough to treat effectively because symptoms, such as tremors and walking difficulties, can vary dramatically over a period of days, or even hours.

To address this challenge, Johns Hopkins University computer scientists, working with an interdisciplinary team of experts from two other institutions, have developed a new approach that uses sensors on a smartphone to generate a score that reliably reflects symptom severity in patients with Parkinson’s disease.

In a study published recently online in the journal JAMA Neurology, researchers from Johns Hopkins’ Whiting School of Engineering, the University of Rochester Medical Center, and Aston University in the U.K. reported that the severity of symptoms among Parkinson’s patients seen by neurologists aligned closely with those generated by their smartphone app.

Typically, patients with Parkinson’s disease are evaluated by medical specialists during three or four clinic visits annually with subjective assessments capturing only a brief snapshot of a patient’s fluctuating symptoms. In their homes, patients may also be asked to fill out a cumbersome 24-hour “motor diary” in which they keep a written record of their mobility, involuntary twisting movements and other Parkinson’s symptoms. The doctor then uses this self-reported or imprecise data to guide treatment.

In the new study, the researchers say patients could use a smartphone app to objectively monitor symptoms in their home and share this data to help doctors fine-tune their treatment.

Using existing smartphone components such as its microphone, touch screen and accelerometer, the team members devised five simple tasks involving voice sensing, finger tapping, gait measurement, balance and reaction time. They turned this into a smartphone app called ‘HopkinsPD.’ Next, using a machine learning technique that the team devised, they were able to convert the data collected with these tests and turn that into an objective Parkinson’s disease severity score—a score that better reflected the overall severity of patients’ symptoms and how well they were responding to medication.

The researchers say this smartphone evaluation should be particularly useful because it does not rely on the subjective observations of a medical staff member. Moreover, it can be administered any time or day in a clinic or within the patient’s home, where the patient is less likely to be as nervous as in a medical setting.

Collecting more frequent smartphone test data in a medical setting as well as in the home, could give doctors a clearer picture of their patients’ overall heath and how well their medications are working.

Johns Hopkins University has the full release

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