Early diagnosis for neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s represents the best opportunity for treatment. The first warning signs can be very subtle, however, and therefore often go unnoticed.
Now, a joint study undertaken by Microsoft and Duke University has found that an everyday home computer could help relatives to spot the first indications that there might be a problem. If you notice the cursor shaking when your mother or father is looking online, their scrolling speed has decreased, or searches have become repetitive, it’s time to take action.
The scientists considered data from more than 31 million Americans to see how their online behaviour offered an insight into potential conditions. They suggested that software could be developed in the future to spot brain conditions early on.
A shaky mouse could be the telltale sign for Parkinson’s, which is known to cause tremors in the hands. Searches for the same thing again and again, which was seen in the analysis of older users of the Bing search engine, could point to either Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s, as both conditions lead to memory loss.
Both Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s are growing health issues in the UK, as the population lives for longer. It is thought there are approximately 127,000 people living with Parkinson’s in this country, equating to one in 500 individuals. Meanwhile, cases of Alzheimer’s have risen to 520,000, and with no cure, this is set to increase further.
The research identified 703 people who could potentially have Parkinson’s disease. The next step in the process will be to compare their online activity with patients that have been given a confirmed diagnosis and see whether their actions correlate.
In the study, data was collected over the course of 18 months, but software designed to detect changes in behaviour would track activity for a much longer period. This could add to its accuracy and ability to pick up on the most subtle cues.
Dr Murali Doraiswamy, lead author of the study, told the Wall Street Journal: “Both of these conditions in their very early stages can be very hard to differentiate from a host of benign conditions, so the misdiagnosis rate is high.
“[With computer data] you can see how someone is changing over time, which might give you greater sensitivity and accuracy in making a diagnosis.”