Smartphones and tablets can now be seen as an extension of our body. In fact, the way we use them says a lot more about ourselves than we might think. For example, they give clues about our health and whether we suffer from diseases such as Parkinson's disease. This condition is the second most frequent neurodegenerative disorder and affects more than 10 million people worldwide. There is currently no cure and no biological test in the patient's body that provides a specific diagnosis or allows an objective monitoring of the evolution of the disease.
The first symptoms of Parkinson's are so subtle that they often go unnoticed, so it may take the patient several years to realize what is happening to him or her. To support early diagnosis of this disorder, researcher Teresa Arroyo-Gallego has developed NeuroQWERTY, a project that analyzes people's interaction with their smart devices and obtains hidden information about their brain health. Thanks to this proposal, the young biotechnologist has been recognized as one of the winners of Innovators Under 35 Europe from MIT Technology Review.
Arroyo-Gallego started her project in 2015 when she was doing her PhD thesis in Electronic Engineering at the Polytechnic University of Madrid, Spain. She is currently a Research Scholar at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and also leads the scientific data team at nQMedical in Cambridge (both in the US), the company with which she is developing this project.
Damage to the central nervous system, a characteristic of neurodegenerative diseases, affects psychomotricity. nQMedical analyzes each user's interaction with a touch screen, such as sending a text message, to calculate its performance. Through a machine learning algorithm, the technology tracks symptoms such as tremors, slowness of movement, and stiffness of the fingers when using a mobile device. From there, it compares user behavior and detects any anomalies. This makes it possible to obtain digital markers that accurately reveal the presence of these diseases.
This is a less invasive method than traditional procedures. Today, the standard for diagnosing Parkinson's requires the patient to perform a series of exercises, but there is a risk that the exercises may not be completed correctly. The researcher explains, "By analyzing natural typing patterns in the background, our technology makes it possible to evaluate objectively, transparently and in real time variations in the psychomotor state characteristic of Parkinson's disease. This allows for better-informed decisions to be made and potentially earlier than current standards.”
The innovator comments that they are currently working "on applying the technology in clinical studies." Her aim is that, in the future, this system will also intervene in the diagnosis of other diseases such as Alzheimer's, multiple sclerosis, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.
Daniel Dickens, General Director of Helix Centre and member of the Innovators Under 35 Europe 2019 jury, says that Arroyo-Gallego "is an exceptional candidate, who is doing an extremely pioneering job and deserves recognition." He adds that, although "she is at the beginning of her career, she will be one of the leading players in this industry for many years to come."
By Alba Casilda
Translation: Brian Bostwick