Parkinson’s is a chronic and progressive disease of the brain that leads to tremors and other muscle control difficulties, and eventually can result in severe disability and dementia. While there is no cure yet, healthcare professionals can use medications to slow the progress of the illness. The sooner the disease is detected, the more effective the treatment can be.

But therein lies the rub; early detection is difficult. The current practice requires extensive testing by trained professionals, typically in a clinical setting. As a result, long intervals can pass between evaluations. Researchers at MIT and in Spain have come up with a simple solution using a computer keyboard. When a person types on a keyboard, the timing between keystrokes is easy to measure. This data can be analyzed to produce a personalized “fingerprint” unique to each individual person. (In fact, this technology was originally developed as a possible substitute for computer passwords.)

As it turns out, people with Parkinson’s tend to have much greater variation in the time between keystrokes than healthy individuals. A study showed that an analysis of 10 to 15 minutes of typing was sufficient to distinguish between Parkinson’s patients and healthy subjects. The beauty of the system is that it does not need to know the content of the typing; all it needs to do is monitor the timing between key presses. The system can be installed on a computer as a program that runs in the background, or it can be incorporated into a hardware device that is independent of the computer. The software could even be embedded in a website to provide online testing.

The result is an inexpensive way to monitor for early signs of Parkinson’s (and possibly other disorders), which can be done without the need for trained professionals or clinical setting. Simply answering your morning’s email or interacting  on Facebook could provide enough data to monitor people at home. And for people with Parkinson’s, the system could help by monitoring the effectiveness of medications, or of other interventions such as sports or yoga. This is an excellent example of how biometric data is already readily available as a result of our normal daily activities, yet this information could be gathered and analyzed for a variety of significant benefits.