What Can Wearable Devices Really Do?

We’ve all heard the phrases “wearable technology” and “wearable devices” tossed around as tech enthusiasts get more excited about the potential for small sensors and electronics packed into a sporty watch or wristband to track our fitness and health everyday. Whether they’re tracking sweat, monitoring sleep, counting calories, measuring steps, or charting runs, products like the Jawbone, FitBit, or Nike Fuel Band seem useful enough when you’re healthy — though for many consumers, not yet useful enough to buy one and keep using it for more than six months — but what about when you’re sick? When will wearable device manufacturers apply the technology to ideas that could be useful in clinical settings, or for use in diagnostic or medical research purposes?

If Intel has its way, that time is now. The company is partnering with the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research to find patterns in the data collected by wearable devices that monitor patients’ symptoms. In Intel’s announcement of the partnership, the company noted that the study aims to improve research and treatment of Parkinson’s disease, and will pioneer a new big data analytics platform to measure the progression of the disease. With that knowledge, researchers could better develop drugs and treatments for Parkinson’s patients. Todd Sherer, chief executive of the Michael J. Fox Foundation, said in Intel’s news release:

“Nearly 200 years after Parkinson’s disease was first described by Dr. James Parkinson in 1817, we are still subjectively measuring Parkinson’s disease largely the same way doctors did then. Data science and wearable computing hold the potential to transform our ability to capture and objectively measure patients’ actual experience of disease, with unprecedented implications for Parkinson’s drug development, diagnosis and treatment.”

By fitting patients with wearable devices, researchers for the project by Intel and the Michael J. Fox Foundation will be able to get a better handle on the variety of symptoms with which Parkinson’s manifests. The huge amount of data that the multi-phase study collects — more than 300 observations per second for each patient — will be combined with a growing base of molecular data contained in the cellular profiles created by researchers pioneering continually improving genomics and proteomics techniques. The data from the wearable devices’ observation of patients’ symptoms, like slowness of movement, tremors, and sleep quality, will correlate with this molecular data to afford a better understanding of the disease.