Parkinson’s Disease is the second most common neurodegenerative diseases, ceding first place only to Alzheimer’s, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC says the prevalence of Parkinson’s increases from 1% of the population at age 60 to 4% at age 80. Microsoft Research Labs in Cambridge, England reports more than 10 million people in the world have Parkinson’s Disease, with an additional 60,000 people in the U.S. diagnosed with the disease each year. Common early symptoms of Parkinson’s include tremors, rigidity, and difficulty walking.
Microsoft Researcher Haiyan Zhang recently demonstrated a wearable that can help Parkinson’s patients write and draw at Microsoft’s 2017 Build Conference. Called the Emma Watch, the wearable is named for Emma Lawton, a graphic designer diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2013 when she was in her late 20s. The wearable consists of the wristband wearable and a Windows 10 tablet with an app that controls a rhythmic vibration in the watch. Zhang and her fellow researchers aren’t sure why the Emma Watch works with Lawton, helping her write and draw. Their current theory is the vibrations somehow cause Lawton’s brain to focus on her right wrist, which interferes with the extra signals sent to muscles in an endless feedback loop that characterizes Parkinson’s.
The Emma Watch is a one-off. The vibration patterns that work with Lawton may be unique to her. That’s one of the questions Zhang and her colleagues are working on. The team is working with neuroscientists in London getting ready for initial device trials. Zhang, whose position is Director of Innovation at the Cambridge lab, is also leading Project Emma, a wider initiative to study the use of sensors and artificial intelligence to detect, monitor, and counteract Parkinson’s symptoms. The hope is that in time the project may discover technology to help a wide population of Parkinson’s patients with tremors, body rigidity, gait issues, and falling. Lawton, who has been using the watch in her work and daily life, serves as a consultant for Project Emma. She also maintains a daily video blog about her life with Parkinson’s and the Emma Watch.