Two days after Robin Williams’ tragic suicide, The Michael J. Fox Foundation (MJFF) and Intel announced a collaboration to use advanced technologies to improve Parkinson’s disease (PD) and monitoring. The announcement was clearly in the works for some time, and the press release is appropriate in not mentioning Williams, who was diagnosed with the disease shortly before his death according to a statement made by his wife, Susan Schneider.
The disease is devastating; slowly degenerating the nervous system and killing cells in the brain, resulting in rigidity, and tremor, often of the head and hands, and loss of other motor functions. Depression is “the most common psychiatric symptom” according to Wikipedia. It is a disease that hits close to Intel’s heart, as former CEO Andrew Grove also lives with Parkinson’s, along with 1.4 million others in the United States.
The collaboration between Intel and MJFF puts Intel Basis smartwatches on the wrists of Parkinson’s patients to collect data on their behavior. The watches are made by Basis, acquired by Intel in March 2014, less than a year after Intel Capital invested $11.75M in the company. A benefit that hasn’t been available in previous studies, is that data is automatically collected by the smartwatch, rather than requiring the patient to input information. This smartwatch will help physicians find “the answers [that] are within us” Michael J. Fox told USA Today on August 13, 2014.
This is not Intel’s first foray into Parkinson’s. In 2009 it’s “At-Home Testing Device”, a tele-monitoring system, was used to collect data on “a variety of PD-related motor impairment systems” in a study conducted by the University of Oxford and the University of Colorado. That data, which includes 6000 recordings from 42 patients, perhaps formed some basis for the new collaboration’s objectives.
Diane Bryant, Senior Vice President of Intel’s Data Center Group says “Many new technologies can help create a new paradigm for measurement of Parkinson’s, but as more data is made available to the medical community, it may also point to currently unidentified features of the disease that could lead to new areas of research.”
The collaboration, and the study it enables, is indeed exciting with regards to the amount of data that can be collected. Thus far 25 people have participated in the study, 16 of whom have Parkinson’s and 9 healthy subjects serving as the control group. In the next phase, the study will allow also include a mobile application that enables patients to report medication and mood. This study could encompass hundreds or even thousands of participants given the ease of data gathering with the Basis watches. The challenge will now be the data analysis, rather than the data gathering, which is good progress.
This study, however, will yield insight into behavior, not the root cause of the disease. The biggest mystery of Parkinson’s is the cause of the death of dopamine-producing cells in the substantia nigra area of the brain. A large set of data on motor behavior would likely not yield insight into what is causing this cell death.
There are years of research on Parkinson’s with observations of the individual, or what Professor Andrew Lees, a leader in Parkinson’s research, has termed the “street watch methodology”. Intel’s collaboration with MJFF helps researchers now take another look, with collection of data 300 times per second from potentially thousands of patients. If Intel can step up to the challenge of analyzing such a trove of data, researchers may be able to identify previously unidentified features of the disease. This is an important step to helping people with Parkinson’s, but it is not yet the cure. For that we may need to look to gene therapy.