Farid Farahmand, an electrical engineering professor at Sonoma State University, learned firsthand about the effects of Parkinson’s disease when a good friend was diagnosed 10 years ago and he began taking him to doctor’s appointments.
“Being with a person that is dealing with this disease is very heartbreaking,” he said. “In the advanced stages it’s very difficult to do normal stuff.”
The disease’s well-known hand tremors, he said, have hampered his friend’s ability to do simple things like shave, dress, and hold a fork with food.
Medication helps, but managing medications and dosages can be tricky because doctors can’t observe a patient’s symptoms on a day-to-day basis, Farahmand said.
So Farahmand last year set about creating a wearable electronic device that could monitor a person’s symptoms.
Under his guidance, a team of three undergraduate students — two electrical engineering majors, Luis Reyes and Campbell Smith, and one kinesiology major, Janene Grippi — are developing a glove that can gauge the frequency and severity of a hand’s tremor in real time. The information the glove gathers, they say, could be emailed to a doctor who could analyze it and adjust medication accordingly.
They’re collaborating with a Sonoma County neurologist, Allan Bernstein, who treats Parkinson’s patients and researches the disease. Such a device could help physicians personalize treatments that are currently standardized, he said.
Right now, “everyone is treated by the book,” he said. “But nobody is ‘the book.’ ”
He added that providing the right medication early in a person’s diagnosis can buy “a huge amount of time.”
Parkinson’s symptoms, such as tremors and muscle stiffness, can fluctuate from day to day and even within the same 24 hours, he said. He has patients keep diaries of their symptoms, but those are still much less accurate than the information an electronic monitoring system could gather.
Last week, the students met in a lab at SSU’s Salazar Hall and prepared to present their first prototype to Bernstein.
The group spent the summer researching the project and began developing the glove this fall semester. Other universities and businesses are working on similar devices, Farahmand said. That includes Intel, which announced this summer that it is partnering with the Michael J. Fox Foundation to design hardware and software that could be used to monitor Parkinson’s patients. Farahmand said SSU’s work is set apart by a focus on simplicity, long battery life, low cost and flexible software that doctors and neurologists can easily customize.
Smith, sitting at his laptop, demonstrated the device. It was made from a simple neoprene wrist brace, the kind available at a drugstore for $15. Smith had removed the stiff brace material from its rubbery casing and replaced it with a tiny bundle of wires attached to a miniature memory card, a battery and sensors that measure a hand’s motion.
Once assembled, it looked and felt like a fingerless glove, allowing a person’s wrist to bend as usual. The idea, Grippi said, was that someone could wear it while doing all their day-to-day activities.
Then, they could remove the memory card, insert it into a computer and send the information to their doctor.
“One of the goals is to have the patient be in the comfort of their own home and still be able to manage” the disease, Smith said.