Scientists believe that an unassuming suburban house could be the answer to revolutionising treatments for Parkinson’s disease and some forms of dementia. The property has been transformed into a living laboratory that better replicates the challenges faced by those with these conditions than most trial settings.
Project BlueSky, which is a joint venture between the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and computer company IBM, is responsible for the house. It is situated in New York and is fully equipped with sensors that detect the smallest of changes. These can be in relation to an inhabitant’s strength, posture or even the time it takes for a task to be completed.
Such changes, no matter how subtle, can provide useful insight into how a treatment is performing, especially if improvement or deterioration happens slowly over time. The property could therefore prove a breakthrough in the way that clinical trials are run, with things like gait and grip measured in the patients staying in the house.
Many common household items in the property, such as kettles, kitchen cupboards and the door handle to the fridge, have been fitted with sensors. The grip they exert or the amount of pressure they use can change almost imperceptibly, but be vital clues to their health. The amount of time it takes to remove bread from the bread bin and put it in the toaster could also show the progression of Parkinson’s or dementia.
Even the sofas, beds and chairs have been made to incorporate smart textiles that are able to detect the subtle differences in body position. These testing methods will be accompanied by the inhabitants – who will stay for anything from a few days to several weeks – wearing sensors.
These will be attached to their wrists, feet, chest and lower back, allowing all manner of things to be monitored. This is likely to be particularly useful for Parkinson’s, which is characterised by tremors and bradykinesia, a type of abnormally slow movement.
Readings from all of these sensors will then be sent wirelessly to a command centre positioned near the entrance hall. Experts who collate the information will be able to track the progression of a patient’s condition and see how various forms of treatment are affecting it.
Dr Beckie Port, research communications manager at Parkinson’s UK, said: “One of the issues we have with Parkinson’s is that we cannot monitor the progression of the disease accurately, which means we cannot test new drugs very effectively. Clinical trials could have failed in the past, not because the drugs have not worked, but because we were unable to test them effectively in Parkinson’s.”
The technology that has been fitted into the house was trialled on IBM staff prior to installation. That has allowed for standard settings to be ascertained, working as a control against which the patients are tested. Parkinson’s is a condition that mainly affects the elderly and an ageing population means that the 127,000 sufferers at present is predicted to grow to twice that number by the year 2025.