Could Keyboards Detect Parkinson’s Disease Earlier?

Few conditions are as ruthless as Parkinson’s Disease. But what makes this one even scarier is that the wheels are set in motion long before the first symptoms emerge – sometimes as early as 10 years in advance.

New research done by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) heralds a new diagnosis technique that might help identify early onset of the condition.

PD is serious business

There are about 7 to 10 million sufferers of Parkinson’s in the world today. In the United States alone, some 50,000-60,000 new cases of PD are diagnosed each year, according to the National Parkinson Foundation. Men are 1.5 times more likely to have Parkinson’s than women.

Tremor is the most visible and the most common symptom, though around 30% of those with PD do not have tremor at disease onset. Most patients develop it as the disease progresses, and it affects the most distal part of the limb to a greater extent. But there’s another characteristic of PD called “hypokinesia,” which translates into slowness of movement, from planning to initiation and finally execution.

Because of this, what MIT had originally intended as a fatigue study later turned into a revolutionary new way to diagnose PD. Which is good news for those who are potentially afflicted but don’t know it yet. Because starting treatment early on can dramatically reduce the hardships associated with the disease.

Photo by Kaitlyn Baker on Unsplash

Analyzing keystroke patterns

Using traditional keyboards rigged with pressure sensors, the researchers created a program that analyzed key presses – specifically, the duration of individual key presses – to observe the effects of fatigue. They soon discovered that the same test could be used to diagnose conditions that impair motor function, such as the widely-known Parkinson’s Disease.

Ian Butterworth, one of the authors of the paper appearing in Scientific Reports, said “there might be hidden information in the way that we type. At the moment, pretty much all of the other information in typing is thrown out. We just pay attention to what keys are being pressed, not when or for how long.”

The results produced by PD-stricken subjects taking the same test were promising, paving the way for detecting even the faintest onset signs much earlier. Like many conditions that affect the motor system, Parkinson’s can be slowed down if treated early in its onset.

This is the first time researchers have used keystroke patterns to attempt to diagnose a condition that impairs motor function, so more testing is needed to determine the accuracy of the experiment. However, like anything mathematical, the algorithm used for the test can be improved as more data becomes available.

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