AUSTIN -- The death of Robin Williams has helped put the spotlight on an incurable disease. Williams' family said the comedic actor's suicide may have been due in part to him recently being diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. Now another famous face from Hollywood is embarking on a new, more comprehensive method of researching Parkinson's that scientists hope will unlock much of the mystery surrounding the disease.
Boxing great Muhammad Ali and actor Michael J. Fox. They're perhaps the two most famous people alive diagnosed with Parkinson's disease.
"Parkinson's is a neurodegenerative disease," said Robert Izor, M.D., a neurologist at St. David's North Austin Medical Center and an affiliate member of NeuroTexas Institute at St. David's. "It's a disease of aging where patients develop motor problems as well as cognitive and behavioral problems."
Tremors and other uncontrollable movements are some of the most recognizable symptoms. The disease affects about five million people worldwide and usually occurs in the later stages of life. But Fox is proof that's not always the case. Now his foundation is hoping that data taken from sensors worn by Parkinson's patients might result in much more information far more quickly than the current pace of Parkinson's research.
"We needed some other objective way to measure these patients, and this looks very promising," said Izor.
Izor says in the past it's been extremely difficult to perform studies on Parkinson's patients because it's such a slow, progressive disorder and the changes in motor function and disability vary from day to day.
"When researchers are looking at a large group of patients they're only taking time points and using scale tests," he said. "With this technology they'll be able to get continuous objective data over the entire course of the study."
The key to research will be wearable sensors – similar to this pulse or heart rate monitor which sends information to the watch. The Parkinson's research uses a Basis Watch.
"It can actually detect the presence of tremor how intense it is and how frequently during the day it occurs," said Izor. "Whereas if a patient comes into the office or the research lab and they score them at a particular time point they may not have tremor on that that day or it may not be as severe."
The watches will collect more than 300 data points every second. Patients taking part in the research will be monitored 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. The next phase of the research involves a smartphone app. It would allow the patients to enter in how much medicine they're taking, how many tremors they had that day and other information researchers never had access to in more subjective studies.
"You could have hundreds of patients wearing different types of sensors, and all of that data can be sent to a data base that can be viewed by researchers," said Izor.
Seventy-nine-year-old Arlene Klein of Georgetown has been suffering with Parkinson's for the last five years. She's encouraged by anything that might help researchers find the cause of this mystifying disease.
"It sounds very interesting and very good," said Klein. "You'd be monitoring every 24 hours, and it would mean a lot to me if they could monitor me all day long."