Engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently unveiled a radar-like device that could test people for signs of Parkinson’s disease as they slept. Now, they say the same system can monitor Parkinson’s patients in a different way, by tracking how they walk.
“We know very little about the brain and its diseases,” said Dina Katabi, the MIT electrical engineering professor who led the project. “My goal is to develop non-invasive tools that provide new insights about the functioning of the brain and its diseases.”
The system developed by Katabi and her colleagues, Yingcheng Liu and Guo Zhang, uses a radio transmitter-receiver that can be installed in a person’s home. The device broadcasts a signal that’s far less powerful than a typical home Wi-Fi router. The signal can pass through walls but is reflected by the water in human bodies. The receiver picks up the reflected signal just like a radar system and constantly 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. Her team is using the same hardware, with different software, to track the ongoing condition of Parkinson’s patients as they walk around the house. Parkinson’s patients tend to walk more slowly than healthy people of the same age.
According to a paper published Wednesday in Science Translational Medicine, Katabi and her colleagues tested the system for one year on 50 people, 34 of them with Parkinson’s disease. The receiver collected 200,000 observations. By analyzing the data, they could distinguish between test subjects who had the disease and those who didn’t.
More important, they were able to measure the effectiveness of Levodopa, a medication aimed at controlling the symptoms of the disease. For example, the patients’ walking speed would tend to improve for a time after taking the medication, then deteriorate as the effects wore off.
The system would reduce the need for doctor visits, because the physician could monitor patients at home, in real time. The extra data could also help doctors prescribe the optimum dosage of Parkinson’s drugs. And because it collects so much data so quickly, the system could dramatically speed up testing of new Parkinson’s drugs.
How soon could such a system be deployed? Katabi said that it wouldn’t require approval from the US Food and Drug Administration because the system merely collects data.
“The device doesn’t make medical decisions, only measurements,” she said. “In principle, it should be possible very soon.”
Hiawatha Bray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.