MIT takes a step forward in technology to monitor Parkinson’s disease

Engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently unveiled a radar-like device that could test people for signs of Parkinson’s disease while they sleep. Now they say the same system can monitor Parkinson’s patients in a different way, by tracking their walk.

“We know very little about the brain and its diseases,” said Dina Katabi, an MIT electrical engineering professor who led the project. “My goal is to develop non-invasive tools that provide new insights into brain function and disease.”

The system developed by Katabi and his colleagues, Yingcheng Liu and Guo Zhang, uses a radio transceiver that can be installed in a person’s home. The device broadcasts a much weaker signal than a typical home Wi-Fi router. The signal can pass through walls but is reflected by water in the human body. The receiver picks up the reflected signal like a radar system and continuously monitors human movements.

Last month, Katabi said the technology could be used to detect changes in a sleeping person’s breathing patterns, an early sign of Parkinson’s disease. His team uses the same hardware, with different software, to track the current status of Parkinson’s disease patients as they walk around the house. Patients with Parkinson’s disease tend to walk more slowly than healthy people of the same age.

According to a paper published Wednesday in Science Translational Medicine, Katabi and his colleagues tested the system for a year on 50 people, including 34 with Parkinson’s disease. The receiver collected 200,000 observations. By analyzing the data, they were able to distinguish between test subjects who had the disease and those who did not.

More importantly, they were able to measure the effectiveness of Levodopa, a drug intended to control the symptoms of the disease. For example, patients’ walking speed reportedly tends to improve for a while after taking the drug and then deteriorate as the effects wear off.

The system would reduce the need for doctor visits, as the doctor could monitor patients at home, in real time. The additional data could also help doctors prescribe the optimal dosage of drugs for Parkinson’s disease. And because it collects so much data so quickly, the system could dramatically speed up the testing of new drugs for Parkinson’s disease.

How soon could such a system be deployed? Katabi said it would not require US Food and Drug Administration approval because the system only collects data.

“The device doesn’t make medical decisions, only measurements,” she said. “In principle, this should be possible very soon.”

Hiawatha Bray can be contacted at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.

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