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LIVING WELL: Researchers take innovative approach to Parkinson's

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Parkinson’s disease is a slowly progressive neurological disease affecting voluntary movement and other functions.

Many readers will recall actor Michael J. Fox being diagnosed with the disease when was 37 years old. This is an unusual age for the disease to appear, as it usually hits those older than 50. About 10 percent of Parkinson’s diagnoses occur in people age 40 or younger.

Another famous personality stricken with Parkinson’s disease at an early age is boxer Muhammad Ali, who was diagnosed at age 42. Although Ali is a tremendous athlete and has been declared the greatest boxer of all time, the disease has rendered him incapable of normal voluntary movements most people take for granted.

Parkinson’s is a particularly troubling disease in that it is difficult to diagnose in its early stages, and there is presently no cure.

There is no non-invasive test or blood test that can be undertaken if Parkinson’s disease is suspected.

However, a new discovery may soon lead to diagnosis through a non-invasive voice test.

Like many other major discoveries, the new approach to diagnosing Parkinson’s disease came about as a matter of chance.

Interestingly enough, the new diagnostic test originated as the result of a mathematician seeking a practical use for some analysis of computer data.

In 2003, Max Little, who was working on a doctorate in mathematics at Oxford University, was seeking a practical use for a system of data analysis that he had developed. It occurred to him that his process could be used to objectively quantify voice function in patients who had developed disorders from over-use or perhaps as a result of surgery.

It had not occurred to him to consider using the application in patients with movement disorders such as Parkinson’s until a chance meeting with Andy Grove, one of the founders of the Intel Corporation.

Grove was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2000 and has since devoted a great deal of money and personal effort into finding a cure for the disease.

Intel has also committed significant resources to monitoring the progression of patients with Parkinson’s in an effort to find a cure. They have measured and recorded examples of many aspects of voluntary movement such as gait, fine hand movements, facial expression and even the voice of patients.

At the time of the coincidental meeting of Grove and Little, Intel had gathered a substantial number of voice recordings of patients with Parkinson’s as well as people without the disease. They did not however, have any idea how to use the data. Grove inquired about the use of Little’s voice analysis method.

Little agreed to work with the researchers, and through his mathematical analysis, was able to correctly identify 86 percent of those with Parkinson’s disease by analyzing their voice samples.

This remarkable initial success opens up a realm of possibilities that could apply not only to Parkinson’s but to other neurological disorders as well.

Obviously, voice analysis is a test that is not invasive, and perhaps, could even be done from a distance, perhaps even over the telephone.

What’s needed now is more data. Specifically, more voice samples are needed.

Volunteers are being sought to provide voice samples so that the algorithm can be enhanced for even more accuracy.

To volunteer, all that is required is to dial a specific number and participate in an anonymous, three-minute process. Healthy volunteers are needed as well.

In the United States, the number to call to volunteer is 1-857-284-8035. For more information, go to parkinsonsvoice.org.

The prompts will guide you through a very simple procedure in which you are asked to repeat words or phrases given by the test administrator.

I made the call myself and found that the process was straightforward and took little time.

The current goal is to obtain voice samples of 10,000 people around the world.
Tagged under  Health, Health Care, Living Well, Mark Kestner, Parkinsons Disease, Voices

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