Testing for Parkinson’s Disease Over the Phone

Reading time: 3 – 5 minutes

This week is Brain Awareness Week (BAW), an annual observance dedicated to raising public awareness about the progress and benefits of brain research. Coordinated by the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives and the European Dana Alliance for the Brain, every March, BAW unites the efforts of partner organizations around the world in a week-long celebration of the brain.


As we did for Brain Awareness Week 2011 and Brain Awareness Week 2012, Highlight HEALTH has again partnered with the BAW campaign. Every day this week we’ll be running stories and posting videos on brain research. Today, we’re kicking off Brain Awareness Week 2013 with a look at Parkinson’s disease and a radical new way to test for the disorder — over the phone.

Using the phone to test for Parkinson’s disease

Parkinson’s disease is a neurodegenerative disorder of the central nervous system that progressively impairs a person’s speech and motor skills. Parkinson’s disease is characterized by muscle rigidity, tremors and bradykinesia, a slowing and loss of physical movement. The disease occurs when nerve cells in the brain called neurons become impaired or die. Such degeneration is normal in the aging human brain, but is accelerated in patients suffering from Parkinson’s disease.

Neurons normally produce dopamine, a neurotransmitter responsible for transmitting signals that produce smooth, coordinated function of the body’s muscles and movement. The accelerated loss of dopamine-producing neurons in a Parkinson’s disease patient results in the characteristic tremors and weakness.

Parkinson’s disease ranks among the most common late-life neurodegenerative diseases, affecting approximately 1.5% to 2.0% of the population over 60 years of age. In 2007, researchers published a review of the most common neurological disorders in the United States. According to the study, the prevalence of Parkinson’s disease was nearly 10 out of every 1,000 elderly Americans. That number will likely grow significantly as populations become older throughout the world.

Parkinson's Voice Initiative

Worldwide, Parkinson’s disease affects 6.3 million people. There are no biomarkers or simple tests to detect the disorder or objectively measure disease progression. A neurological exam can be used to diagnose Parkinson’s disease or to separate it from other conditions, but it has to be done by a neurologist in the clinic. What if patients could do a test like this at home? That’s the question the Parkinson’s Voice Initiative is asking.

Voice is affected as much by Parkinson’s disease as limb movements. The Parkinson’s Voice Initiative aims to scale up the detection of Parkinson’s disease and other neurological disorders using a phone-based voice diagnostic test. Last year, the group reached their target of 10,000 calls and are now analyzing the data.

Dr. Max Little is the Director of the Parkinson’s Voice Initiative. An applied mathematician and Wellcome Trust-MIT Postdoctoral Research Fellow, he has a background in applied mathematics, statistics, signal processing and computational engineering. Little and his team have developed a cheap and simple tool that uses precise voice analysis software to detect Parkinson’s with 99% accuracy — in a 30-second phone call. Check out his TED talk at TEDGlobal 2012: Radical Openness in Edinburgh last year.

About the Author

Walter Jessen, Ph.D. is a Data Scientist, Digital Biologist, and Knowledge Engineer. His primary focus is to build and support expert systems, including AI (artificial intelligence) and user-generated platforms, and to identify and develop methods to capture, organize, integrate, and make accessible company knowledge. His research interests include disease biology modeling and biomarker identification. He is also a Principal at Highlight Health Media, which publishes Highlight HEALTH, and lead writer at Highlight HEALTH.