People with Parkinson’s disease may show hints of motor difficulty years before an official diagnosis, but current methods for detecting early symptoms require clinic visits and highly trained personnel. Three recent studies, however, suggest that diagnosis could be as simple as walking, talking and typing. Tests of activities such as these might eventually enable early intervention, which will be crucial for halting progression of the neurodegenerative condition if a cure becomes available. The findings are exciting, says neurologist Zoltan Mari of Johns Hopkins University. But he cautions that larger studies will be necessary to ensure that these techniques are ready for wider use.
Walking: Data from wearable sensors attached to 93 Parkinson’s patients and 73 healthy controls revealed distinctive walking patterns: factors such as step distance and heel force helped to differentiate between the two groups with 87 percent accuracy, according to an analysis by Shyam Perumal and Ravi Sankar of the University of South Florida.
Talking: In a study by Jan Rusz of Czech Technical University and Charles University, both in Prague, and his colleagues, participants read a list of words aloud, and each made a 90-second recording during which they described their current interests. Fifty of the participants were at high risk for developing Parkinson’s, but only 23 had begun to show symptoms. Simple acoustic features of the short speech samples—including slower speed of talking and longer duration of pauses than healthy controls—pinpointed the symptomatic participants with 70 percent accuracy.
Typing: People with and without Parkinson’s were asked to listen to a folktale and transcribe it by typing. The two groups were matched for age and overall typing speed and excluded people with dementia. Luca Giancardo of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and his colleagues successfully discriminated between the groups solely by analyzing key hold times (the time required to press and release a key). Their analysis performed comparably or better than motor tests currently used in clinical settings.