An experimental app claiming to be able to detect early signs of Parkinson's disease is being tested in the UK.
Researchers from the University of Aston are trying the app on 2,500 individuals, both healthy people and those previously diagnosed with Parkinson's or carrying some of the genes associated with the disease.
The researchers say that the app’s ability to detect slight changes in the speaking voice, walking patterns or manual dexterity characteristic for the onset of the disease, makes it a valuable tool for early diagnostics.
"Not only can you predict whether someone has Parkinson's disease or not, you can actually score their symptoms on clinical scales,” said Max Little, mathematician from the University of Aston, who is leading the research.
"This new kind of remote data analysis will help patients to monitor their conditions on a minute-by-minute basis from the comfort of their own homes.
An earlier analysis of thousands of voice recordings suggested that effects such as increased breathiness, drifting pitch, and altered vowel sounds can detect Parkinson's with 99 per cent accuracy.
Similarly, checking a person's gait with a smartphone's accelerometer - the in-built motion sensor that tells the device what way up it is - identified people with Parkinson's in 98 per cent of cases.
"This study allows us to see if this technology can actually detect the disease before someone is diagnosable using standard techniques," said Little, presenting his research at the British Science Festival taking place at the University of Birmingham.
"The signs are promising. We've been able to show that this technique is extremely accurate; the question is how accurate. Can it pick up symptoms that are subtle and occur before obvious tremors?"
During the study, conducted with the help of scientists at Oxford University, the participants were instructed to use their smartphones with the Parkinson's app at home for a week.
They had to self-assess their voice making an "aah" sound into the phone's microphone and test their gait by walking a distance of 20 paces. Another three-minute test was used to measure manual dexterity.
Little said the system is not designed to replace regular medical consultations but could be useful for doctors to gather more insights into the patient’s symptoms to make early diagnosis.
Some 127,000 people in the UK are known to suffer from Parkinson’s disease, the degenerative neurological condition, which causes severe motoric as well as psychological impairment.
The disease usually affects people above 50 years of age but in rare cases could be diagnose in patients as young as 20 years.
As early signs often go unnoticed by the patients and physicians alike, the disease is usually only diagnosed after symptoms such as tremor and rigidity develop. By then the brain has already suffered significant damage.