The women blazing the trail in Parkinson’s tech and innovation
Women and Parkinson's
Author: Sophie BatesPublished: 6 February 2020
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As part of our Women and Parkinson’s campaign, we take a look at the female innovators behind the latest tech advances for the global Parkinson’s community
Erin Smith, FacePrint
Erin was inspired to research Parkinson’s after watching
an interview with Michael J. Fox, the actor and Parkinson’s activist, noticing
that his facial expressions, and those of other people with Parkinson’s, seemed
“emotionally distant or unfelt”.
After extensive research and teaching herself to code, she developed the AI tool which uses data from photos of the face to identify early indicators of Parkinson’s. During her research, she reached out to the Michael J. Fox Foundation, which led to the organisation collaborating with Smith during development and research.
During her TED talk, Erin said: “One
of the most fascinating elements of this diagnostic tool is that it utilises
biomarkers that may occur up to 10 years before the onset of traditional motor
symptoms and subsequent diagnosis. This is especially critical because it opens
up an exciting opportunity to start developing and testing novel therapeutics
which will ultimately change the way Parkinson’s disease is treated.”
Erin was granted a Thiel Fellowship, which grants USD $100,000
to young entrepreneurs in aid of developing their research.
The DNA nanorobot helps to provide accurate treatment for
Parkinson’s by targeting specific cells rather than all cells in the brain, so
patients can get treatment that is best suited to them.
Sofiya, whose invention has been recognised by the Google
Science Fair, found inspiration after reading a paper by US researcher Lulu
Qian on walking molecular robots.
She said: “By providing more targeted treatment, my
invention could hopefully lesson side effects and make it possible for constant
amounts of medication to cross the blood brain barrier and be administered to
Sofiya is also founder of a non-profit organisation called
Girls Code Chess and is involved in the Ukrainian American advocacy scene.
Beats Medical is a smartphone app that incorporates
metronome therapy – which aims to help manage Parkinson’s symptoms such as
shortened steps, reduced walking speed and freezing.
Ciara began work on the app in 2012. It launched in 2015,
and the team has since updated it with additional speech and hand dexterity
Ciara says: “It’s like a musical beat or sound wave, which
acts as an external signal to control movement and help overcome the walking
issues. For many years this treatment was provided in hospitals, but was not
available at home as the beat/signal needed to be individually tailored.”
Ciara has raised USD $1.2 million in funding for the development of her products.
Neha, who heads up the tech company ‘Walk to Beat’, is the
award-winning inventor of a vibrating Parkinson’s walking stick prototype.
The device detects a pause in motion and sends rhythmic
vibrations to the handle, helping the user regain their natural walking motion.
The product design technology graduate was inspired to
invent a mobility aid after witnessing her late grandfather struggle with
freezing of gait and subsequent falls, caused by his Parkinson’s.
Neha says: “I spent three to four months doing research, talking to patients, going to care homes and attending Parkinson’s UK drop-in sessions. More than the disease itself, a big problem is its impact on social lives. Some other products for people with Parkinson’s have a stigma attached to them – they look like products for disabled people.”
Inspired by her father’s battle with Parkinson’s, design
engineer Lise developed ‘Path Finder’ – a shoe that projects laser lines to
trigger walking, which prevents freezing of gait.
The laser cues are activated by pressure when the wearer
touches down on the ground.
Studies have shown that the futuristic technology can help
reduce injuries, ultimately cutting healthcare costs, and improving quality of
life for people with Parkinson’s.
Lise says: “Having a close family member with Parkinson’s
is difficult. It is devastating to watch my father’s deterioration and I have
often felt frustrated with being unable to help him. One of his biggest
problems has been with freezing… This can be very worrying for the rest of the
family. Working on a product that can help improve his quality of life is
very important for me.”
Lise was awarded a EUR €1 million prize in 2019 form the
European Commission for social innovation.
Mileha Soneji, ‘Staircase illusion’ and ‘NoSpill Cup’
Product designer Mileha noticed that her uncle – who lives
with Parkinson’s – could walk smoothly up and down stairs, but experienced
freezing of gait on flat ground. She found a way to combat this by creating a
flat staircase illusion, which is placed on the floor for users to walk over. Results
have shown that people with the condition are able to walk more smoothly on the
areas where the illusionary mat is placed.
Mileha also designed the ‘NoSpill’ cup to prevent the
spillage of liquids caused by tremors. The cup has a curved shape at the rim
and opening, which deflects the liquid back into the cup rather than spilling
out. It also features other details to help people with tremors: a large handle
and wider base as well as small grooves for extra grip at the fingers.
Mileha said: “I know for a fact that a lot of people living with Parkinson’s are worried they may draw unwanted attention to themselves in public by spilling their drinks because of their tremor… I’m getting a lot of requests for the cup and I’m looking for ways to start the mass manufacture process.”
It is estimated that three million women worldwide are living with Parkinson’s – yet their specific needs and experiences are often ignored, leading to disparities in diagnosis, treatment and medication. Each week, we’ll be sharing the little-heard stories of women with the condition to find out how their lives are being affected by a shocking data gap when it comes to women and Parkinson’s. This is just the start.
We want to raise awareness of women’s experience of the condition within the medical profession, so that women’s symptoms are taken seriously.
We think more research is needed into the impact of Parkinson’s on women, so that they can benefit from tailored medication and treatment.
We want to explore ways to offer better support for those women managing the condition alongside caring responsibilities.
Join us – #WomenAndParkinsons.
For more information on women and Parkinson’s please visit the EPDA website.
If you have a story to tell about being a woman with Parkinson’s – or some information about the impact of the condition on women for us to share with the global Parkinson’s community – please get in touch.
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Why is it harder to cross obstacles when you have Parkinson’s disease?
A team of researchers at São Paulo State University, Brazil, have offered insights on why people with Parkinson’s disease can find it more difficult to cross obstacles than those without the condition. As part of the study, 13 people with Parkinson’s disease and 11 controls stepped over an obstacle 15 times, and scientists measured the distance between the foot and the obstacles during the step. They found that step-length synergy – the ability of the musculoskeletal system to adapt movement when encountering an obstacle – was 53% lower in people with the condition. “There are patients in our exercise group who fall three or four times a week,” said Fabio Augusto Barbieri, one of the study authors. “It’s important to understand how these patients’ gait and locomotion adapt while crossing obstacles so that we can improve step-length synergy.”
This April, The World Parkinson Coalition is launching The Parkinson Tulip Project – a global collaborative photography campaign to raise awareness of the world’s fastest growing neurological disease. As part of the campaign, which is supported by Supernus Pharmaceuticals, members of the Parkinson’s community are invited to share a photo of themselves with tulips – the official symbol of Parkinson’s disease. The project will run until April 2022, and all images shared by the community will be displayed at the sixth World Parkinson Congress in Barcelona, Spain. Additionally, every photo submitted will be entered into The Parkinson Tulip Project raffle. The World Parkinson Coalition hopes that the project will “give a face and name to those impacted by Parkinson’s” and “inspire the community, reminding people touched by Parkinson’s disease that they are not alone”.
Looking after dental health with Parkinson’s disease
Parkinson’s disease symptoms and medications can cause dental health problems – including difficulty cleaning teeth and increased tooth decay. Now, a study from researchers in Brazil has offered dental care recommendations to help people living with the condition. Analysing data from 14 studies, the scientists highlighted people with Parkinson’s can have “reduced quality of oral health and hygiene”. Their advice included routine teeth-brushing, as well as regular trips to a dentist. They also suggested brushing teeth with both hands, as symptoms like tremor and rigidity could mean using one hand is more difficult. The researchers wrote: “Although oral diseases are largely preventable, they are among the most prevalent diseases globally, thus creating a public health problem. “Despite the relatively low level of evidence in studies on oral health among patients with Parkinson’s disease, the data retrieved for this systematic review allowed us to create a set of simple guidelines.”