Does the IoT hold the cards for future Parkinson’s treatment?

By | 3 minute read | July 21, 2016

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What if cognitive technologies could impact the way people live with illnesses like Parkinson’s? From the patient to the practitioner, just imagine if we could harness the power of the Internet of Things to formulate new treatments and care strategies, decipher the root causes of our diseases, and make it possible for those that are suffering to walk better, breathe easier.

I used to play poker with my grandfather. Texas Hold’em, Seven Card Stud, Follow the Queen, you name it. It always made me feel special that he thought I was a capable card shark. Even at the browbeaten age of much too young, I understood that it was mostly a game of luck, and if you were lucky, you knew how to bluff.

I used to play poker with my grandfather. At some point, he couldn’t hold the cards in his hands anymore – he couldn’t bluff his way through his diagnosis anymore. Crossing the floor and sitting at the dinner table were chores painful to watch and worse to endure. I watched him struggle to move, to talk, to speak, to eat.

It was only until my second year of college, in my neuroscience course, when I learned that in order to first see the affected motor symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease (PD), there had to be an eighty percent loss of dopaminergic neuronal function. It struck me how forsaken in nature this disease seemed, to be that far gone before diagnosis is possible. It’s a common truth that the nature of disease and illness is exceptionally unfair. But when you or a loved one experiences it firsthand, common truths tend to feel like exceptions.

In order to understand PD, you first have to understand the function of dopamine. This neurotransmitter is capable of many behavioral consequences, both planned and innate, from movement to learning and reinforcement. Imperative to coordination and the movements we make, the degeneration of neurons that release dopamine is what gives rise to the tremors and muscular rigidity we associate with Parkinson’s.

Symptoms at scale expand chances of new treatment discovery

The causes of degeneration are largely unknown. Documented familial cases are rare. Most instances appear to be random, although several genetic mutations have been discovered to cause the disease.  Even if we acknowledge the fact that the majority of PD cases are not considered to be genetic in root cause, it is in humanity’s best interest to consider all sources of information. Recently we recognized this in the partnership between pharmaceutical companies, like Genetech, and 23andMe, a genetic profiling service, which is gaining ground to deliver the collective genetic information from their database of one million people into researchers’ hands. At this scale, the amount of untapped information broadens our horizons for potential solutions. The possibility of discovering new treatments for diseases like Parkinson’s from big data mirrors the forefront of our technologically savvy environment.

In our own sphere at IBM, we’re seeing many projects rise to combat this disorder. Pfizer and IBM are collaborating in order to revolutionize Parkinson’s treatment and care. As a degenerative disorder, patients with PD must be continually assessed in order to keep up with their symptoms. This becomes potentially problematic as symptoms fluctuate on a constant basis, and a monthly check in with their doctor may not be representative of their experience. An environment in which constantly monitoring sensors and intelligent devices collect data and provide input could give practitioners a more complete look into the progression of their patient’s Parkinson’s. Applying the cognitive insight and analytical abilities IBM Watson and the Internet of Things has to offer could make a significant impact on the way we perceive our treatment techniques. And while this kind of immersive technology wasn’t available for my grandfather, the consequences of this project, and others like it, could make innumerable differences to those affected by this disease.

It was the Nobel prize winning physiologist Albert Szent-Györgyi who once said “Research is to see what everybody else has seen, and to think what nobody else has thought.” I can’t think of a more established outlet for such singular achievement. It is my hope that through continued utilization of cognitive technology, more salient, life-altering solutions are designed and implemented for those affected by Parkinson’s and similar disorders. Time teaches us that we don’t have to settle with what we’re dealt. I believe that in addition to all of its accomplishments, IBM can be at the cutting edge of changing what’s in the cards for those with Parkinson’s.