Smartwatches like the Apple Watch can help detect Parkinson’s disease up to seven years before symptoms show

Researchers have shown how smartwatches such as the Apple Watch can provide data that allows AI to detect Parkinson’s disease as much as seven years before symptoms show, according to EuroNews.

Parkinson’s disease (PD) is a chronic, progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects the nerve cells in the brain that produce dopamine (a neurotransmitter). There are an estimated 600,000 to one million cases of PD in the U.S., and 60,000 new cases are diagnosed each year. Symptoms of PD include depression, anxiety, sleep disorders, bradykinesia, rigidity, balance gait deficits, speech deficits, tremor and dyskinesia. The most common form of tremor is resting tremor, an unintentional movement that affects a limb when it is at rest and stops for the duration of a voluntary movement. 

Detecting and diagnosing Parkinson’s early can mean more effective treatment options – and data gathered by a smartwatch over just a 7-day period could point to signs of the disease, the article adds. Conducted by the UK Dementia Research Institute (UKDRI) and the Neuroscience and Mental Health Innovation Institute (NMHII) at Cardiff University, the researchers say this method could be used as a new screening tool for the illness.

“Smartwatch data is easily accessible and low-cost,” said study leader Dr Cynthia Sandor, Emerging Leader at the UK DRI. “As of 2020, around 30% of the UK population wear smartwatches. By using this type of data, we would potentially be able to identify individuals in the very early stages of Parkinson’s disease within the general population.”

The researchers used data from 103,712 UK Biobank participants, who all wore a medical-grade smartwatch for a 7-day period between 2013-2016. They measured the average acceleration of the person continuously over a week-long period.

By comparing the data from a subset of participants who had already been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease to another group who received a diagnosis up to seven years after the smartwatch data was collected, they could use AI to identify participants who would later go on to develop the disease, according to Euronews.

In 2019, Apple filed for a patent (number 20190366286) for “passive tracking of dyskinesia/tremor symptoms.” Here’s Apple’s summary of the invention: 

Embodiments are disclosed for passive tracking of dyskinesia and tremor symptoms using a wearable computer. In an embodiment, a method comprises: obtaining, by one or more motion sensors of a computer attached to a user’s limb, motion data; extracting, by one or more processors of the computer, one or more features from the motion data that are potentially indicative of dyskinesia or tremor; determining, by one or more processors of the computer and based on the one or more extracted features, the likelihood of dyskinesia or tremor; generating, by the one or more processors, data indicating the likelihood of dyskinesia or tremor; and outputting, by the one or more processors, the data through an output device of the computer.