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The Apple Watch will soon be able to track tremors experienced by Parkinson's Disease patients to help them manage their condition.
Later this year, Apple will release a software update to make it easier for medical researchers to understand the difference between a random movement, and the shakes and dyskinesia that Parkinson's patients experience when they're getting treated with medications.
Apple made the announcement this week at its developer conference, WWDC.
The new "movement disorder API" will accelerate research that's already underway in how wearable devices can be used to track the progression of Parkinson's, said Peter Schmidt, a Parkinson's researcher and vice dean of the Brody School of Medicine at East Carolina University, who has been advising Apple's health team.
About 60,000 people are diagnosed every year with Parkinson's in the U.S. alone and an estimated 10 million people have the disease globally. Not all of these patients will have access to an Apple Watch, or be able to afford one, but Apple is starting to work with health insurance companies like Aetna in figuring out ways to subsidize the cost.
Eventually, according to Schmidt, if the results are promising, it could change how Parkinson's patients are treated, as long as doctors understand how to interpret data from wearable devices.
Schmidt said one particularly exciting use of the Apple Watch could be for patients to pinpoint precisely when their meds are wearing off throughout the day.
As Schmidt explained, patients will typically ramp up their meds as the disease gets worse. Many will take them three times a day with every meal. But the time between lunch and dinner can sometimes stretch on, making the symptoms more pronounced at around 5 o'clock.
"Many patients don't know it's happening and they think they're getting tired or hungry and symptoms are returning," he explained. For those patients, taking an earlier dose of meds before dinner can be a big relief. "That small change could help make a big difference with their symptoms."
Schmidt said the research community is also exploring other uses for wearable devices to help Parkinson's patients, such as whether it can help diagnose the disease earlier.
Apple launched its ResearchKit software in 2015 to open up opportunities for medical researchers to launch iPhone-based studies. Since then, some of the most compelling studies with the most promising results have been aimed at Parkinson's.
Academics immediately saw an opportunity to study for the first time how patients functioned outside of the clinic, particularly on weekends and evenings. People with the disease carry their phones and other devices with them everywhere, but many only go to the doctor every three to six months.
Apple's movement disorder software makes these studies easier, as the algorithms have been designed to report back data that is known to be correlated with a tremor, as opposed to the motion from being on a bicycle, for instance. "With ResearchKit, we saw a set of numbers that represent movement but now we'll see a set of numbers that represent Parkinson's," Schmidt explained.
Apple isn't the only technology company that sees opportunities for its consumer hardware to help people with movement disorders. Verily, Alphabet's life sciences unit, has a product called Liftware that sells spoons and other utensils that are designed to stabilize tremors and shakes.