How Smart Technology Is Being Used to Combat Parkinson's Disease
This past week I went home to Toronto to visit my parents. My grandfather, who is 87-years-old was recently diagnosed with old age dementia and had his driver’s license taken away. While my family was relieved to have him off the road, he was devastated by the loss of independence. That, however, changed one day when I went to pick him up from his house. I arrived to find the house empty, but his car was still in his driveway. It turns out that he ordered himself an Uber. While some apps may be a solution for enabling people at the onset of neurological degeneration, there is a whole field of smart devices being designed to actually treat these diseases. Here we will explore how high-tech cutlery and wearable electronics can help Parkinson’s disease patients mitigate the effects of the disorder.
At present, approximately 60,000 Americans are diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease (PD) each year, and that does not include the cases that go undetected. While people often associate degenerative neurological disease as a condition of the elderly, 4% of PD patients are diagnosed before the age of 50. In the burgeoning age of IoT, we are in a place where tech and healthcare can have profound effects on the quality of life of PD patients. Companies like IBM and Pfizer have realized this and are looking for new ways to track and measure patient data. Their hope is to provide researchers and physicians with real-time data that will ideally aid in symptom treatment and shed new insights on the disease as a whole. In the meantime, here are three promising devices that are geared to helping Parkinson’s patients quality of life, and can extend to other disorders.
Electric spoons will be able to tell your brain what it should be tasting.
Taste is something that most of us take for granted. While it may seem small in comparison to some of the effects of Parkinson’s, losing one’s sense of taste can have a major effect on one’s quality of life. In 2013 Nimesha Ranasinghe’s group at The National University of Singapore showed that taste receptors on the tongue could be fooled to produce sensations of salty, sweet, sour and bitter using a silver electrode. The electrode touches the tip of the tongue and stimulates the receptors using a varying alternating current and small temperatures changes. Today, Ranasinghe and other research groups, including one at the University of London, are applying this Parkinson's disease technology in the form of a spoon to help restore taste in patients with Parkinson’s disease or dementia. While some smart utensils are not very practical, this research leaves a good taste in my mouth.
Another spoon I am happy to see come to market is a product called the Liftware Steady. People suffering from PD symptoms can lose eating independence as a result of hand tremors. This spoon is specially designed to counteract hand tremors and prevent food from falling off of it. To see it in action, check out this video. How does it do this? This spoon (or fork, depending on which attachment you use) has an embedded microchip, a few small motors and motion sensors. It isn’t perfect, but it can cancel approximately 70% of tremors, which means stabilizing tremors up to 2 inches. It also comes with a rechargeable battery, capable of lasting for an hour of continuous use. Liftware hasn’t stopped there, they are continuing to improve the quality of life in patients with limited mobility with their newer product, the Liftware Level.
Wearable technology and smart utensils can mitigate hand tremors caused by PD
The Emma Watch
My favourite piece of wearable Parkinson's disease technology is the Emma watch. Haiyan Zhang, designed this watch specifically for Emma Lawton. Emma is a graphic designer, who is in her early 30’s and has PD symptoms. The tremors deeply affect her ability to draw and write, and the Emma watch is designed to control them. After listening to her describe her experiences, Zhang postulated that Emma’s brain is “at war with itself - half is trying to move her and the other half is trying to stop it. The two signals battle and amplify each other, causing the tremors.” The watch uses vibrating motors to break this feedback loop and distract the brain from trying to control the PD patient’s limbs. In doing this, Emma is now able to write and draw while wearing the watch. Its success has prompted Zhang to look into ways to move it forward so that more people can have access to this technology.
For more info, check out this short documentary detailing Zhang’s creation.
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