Diagnosing Parkinson's with a phone call

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (Ivanhoe Newswire) - Tremors, trouble walking, stiff and achy muscles; there are many unmistakable signs of Parkinson's. Now, researchers are looking at another symptom that could help diagnose the disease with a phone call.

"It's a learning experience every time," said Parkinson's patient, Richard Bailey.

"Yea, I didn't know what was causing it," said Parkinson's patient, David Akins.

"We are discovering new things about how Parkinson's affects the voice," postdoctoral research fellow at MIT Media Lab, Dr. Max Little, said.

MIT'S Dr. Max Little says in lab settings his team's technology was able to detect the disease with 99-percent accuracy just by listening to their voice recordings.

"So we can tell the severity of the symptoms as well, yea," Dr. Little said.

"We were interested in this question whether or not this technology could be deployed over the telephone," Dr. Little said.

The Parkinson's Voice Initiative is collecting phoned-in voices from around the world and measuring 130 features including breathiness, tremors, vocal pitch and tone.

"Not all of them are that easy to hear and that's why you need precision algorithms in order to be able to pick these things out," Dr. Little explained.

"To reduce the costs involved in doing for example mass-scale screening," Dr. Little said.

He says it could also help doctors optimize drug timing and dosage by evaluating patients' voice changes as their medications wear off throughout the day.

So far more than 18 thousand people from around the world, those with and without Parkinson's, have shared their voices for the research. For more information on how the research works, visit www.parkinsonsvoice.org.

BACKGROUND: Parkinson's disease is a condition of the brain affecting approximately six million people. It is most commonly characterized by slowness of movement, stiffness, shaking, and loss of balance. Parkinson's often develops after the age of 50. Although Parkinson's disease is one of the most common nervous system disorders for the elderly, it can affect young people too, usually because a form of the disease runs in their family. Nerve cells use a brain chemical called dopamine to control muscles. When the nerve cells in the brain that produce dopamine are destroyed as a result of Parkinson's, the nerve cells in that particular part of the brain will not properly send messages. The result is the loss of muscle control. The damage gets worse over time. (Source:ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)

SYMPTOMS: Usually symptoms are mild at first. There might be a slight feeling that one foot may be stiff or there might be a small tremor when the disease first makes its appearance. As the disease progresses symptoms can include: slow blinking, difficulty swallowing, constipation, drooling, no expression in the face problems with balance, muscle pains, trouble moving, stiff muscles, shaking (tremors), stooped position, slowed speech or monotone voice, low blood pressure, confusion, anxiety, hallucinations, memory loss, fainting, depression, or dementia. (Source: ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)

TREATMENT: A doctor may be able to diagnose the disease based on symptoms alone, but symptoms can be difficult to access in the elderly. Unfortunately, there is no known cure only a treatment plan to control symptoms. Medicines for Parkinson's are designed to control symptoms usually by increasing levels of dopamine in the brain. Throughout the day the medications can wear off and symptoms can return. Parkinson's requires the patient and doctor to work closely with each other to find the right treatment plan that works best. Common medications are Levodopa (L-dopa), Pramipexole (Mirapex), Selegiline (Eldepryl, Deprenyl), Amantadine or anticholinergic medications to reduce early or mild tremors, or Entacapone to help control movement. Other medications include: Memantine for cognitive difficulties, Antidepressants, Gabapentin for pain, Fludrocortisone for autonomic dysfunction, and Armodafinil for sleep disorders. (Source: ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)

NEW TECHNOLOGY: Testing for Parkinson's can be expensive and time consuming. One of the newest breakthroughs for this disease is the Parkinson's Voice Initiative. Technology has been developed to test for symptoms using voice recordings. The voice tests are just as accurate as clinical tests with 99 percent accuracy and can be administered over the phone, resulting in reduced costs. The Parkinson's Voice Initiative believes that the impact of this test will reduce logistical difficulties (no need to do routine checkups), will become a cost-effective mass recruitment for treatment trials (perhaps obtaining a large database for new treatments to speed up the search for a cure), will have a high-frequency monitoring for individualized treatment options, and will result in population-scale screening programs. Calls can be placed based out of your county, including: USA, Brazil, Mexico, UK, France, Spain, Argentina, Canada, and New Zealand. (Source: parkinsonsvoice.org)