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Aston academic speaks at the launch of Apple Watch

Dr Max Little

16 March 2015

An Aston University academic who helped develop a ‘pocket doctor’ app towards enabling medical researchers to track Parkinson’s disease symptoms, was featured at the launch of the long-awaited Apple Watch. 

Dr Max Little talked about the beneficial impact smartphone and smartwatch technology is having on health research in a special video played during the event. The app, Parkinson’s mPower (Mobile Parkinson Observatory for Worldwide, Evidenced-based Research), was presented onstage by Apple CEO, Tim Cook, who lauded its potential to eventually change the lives of people with the disease. 

With smartphones now able to accurately record movement, activity, location and differences in vocal performance, their potential as tools for providing medically-relevant information has begun to be explored. The mPower app, released yesterday on Apple devices, will be used in a US-based observational study that collects data from Parkinson’s patients in an effort to better understand the disease and how its symptoms can change and fluctuate on a daily and even hourly basis. 

The app can detect and measure a person’s posture and balance, their gait, variations in their voice and can gauge reaction times and hand-to-eye coordination with a series of interactive tests that are taken several times a day. Although the mPower app cannot and does not currently provide any medically-validated information, previous studies have shown that changes in voice and movement collected by apps like this, if analysed by specialized mathematical algorithms, can accurately reflect changes in progression of the disease. 

People with the disease do not have enough of a brain chemical called dopamine because the neurons producing it have died. Its absence progressively slows down movements, causes tremor and muscle stiffness and erodes an individual’s control over their speech. About one person in every 500 has Parkinson’s, or about 127,000 people in the UK. Most people who get Parkinson’s are aged 50 or over but one in 20 diagnosed is under the age of 40. 

Speaking after the Apple launch, Dr Little, of Aston’s Nonlinearity and Complexity Research Group, said: “It was a real privilege and quite a thrill to be a part of such a major event. Apple has been incredibly enthusiastic about our research work and it is great that they chose the mPower app to demonstrate the health research possibilities of smartphone and smartwatch technology. 

“There is a definite demand in research for simple, ubiquitous tools to measure the course of the disease and we hope apps like mPower can go some way towards facilitating this. It is currently not possible to have the condition measured objectively over a sustained period of time. It really is a fantastic opportunity to further our understanding of Parkinson’s and maybe one day, how to better treat it or even help cure it.” 

The app, developed by Sage Bionetworks in partnership with Dr Little and Dr Ray Dorsey of the University of Rochester, US, will allow medical researchers to conduct very large remote studies and collect more objective data about the disease than ever before. Traditional clinical studies often have a few tens of participants. With mPower, thousands of people can easily consent to take part. Since its launch on the Apple App Store on 9 March, around 7,000 individuals have downloaded and signed up.

Apple product launches are live streamed by millions worldwide and watched closely by the global press and major industry players keen to see the tech giant’s next move.

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For further media information, please contact Jonathan Garbett, Aston University Communications on 0121 204 4552 or j.garbett@aston.ac.uk