Sonoma State University project aims to improve Parkinson’s disease treatments

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.

Marc Alexander, who has Parkinson’s and is a member of the Sonoma County Parkinson’s Support Group, was not aware of the project at SSU but knew of similar devices being developed at other universities. If developed properly, he said, it could be helpful for Sonoma County residents since there are currently no motion disorder specialists working the area.

Being able to send digital information could save patients long trips to specialists and provide a more complete picture for doctors to evaluate, rather than just a snapshot of symptoms from a brief visit to a doctor’s office, he said.

Bernstein on Monday said he liked the prototype he’d seen the week before, calling it simple and low-cost. He said one challenge for the students will be finding a simple way for users to transmit the information to their doctors: Many patients are older and may not know how to send the information over a computer. A built-in “send” button would be helpful, he said.

Once the students have refined the glove, they hope to test it on local Parkinson’s patients.

Farahmand said the project is part of an effort on his and the university’s part to provide more meaningful research projects to students.

“I like to show students that the skills you learn as an engineer are the types of skills you can use to serve the community or improve someone’s quality of life,” he said.

The students plan to present their work at a California State University biotechnology symposium in Santa Clara in January.

“It’s been really fun,” Smith said of the experience so far. “It’s neat to start from scratch, build it and have it work, especially if it might benefit the community.”

Staff Writer Jamie Hansen blogs about education at You can reach her at 521-5205 or On Twitter @jamiehansen.

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