Microsoft has invented a piece of wearable technology that it says can help to reduce hand tremors caused by Parkinson’s disease.
The Emma Watch uses vibrating motors – similar to those found in mobile phones – to distract the wearer’s brain from trying to control the limbs.
It was named after Emma Lawton, a creative director and graphic designer who at 29 was diagnosed with Parkinson’s.
As a result of her hand tremors, Lawton was unable to write legibly and draw delicate designs – an important part of her work.
But Haiyan Zhang, innovation director at Microsoft Research in Cambridge in the UK, has invented a device that could change this.
Inspired by Lawton’s plight, Zhang spent months studying the disease. She learned that it caused a “feedback loop” in the patient's mind, which meant that the brain was effectively at war with itself – one half trying to move the hand and the other half trying to stop it. And this constant battle was responsible for the hand tremors.
By temporarily short-circuiting that loop, Zhang believed that Lawton might regain some control over her hands. So she set about building and testing prototypes based on this idea.
Emma writes her name
Parkinson’s is a degenerative brain disorder that affects around 10 million people globally. One of its most famous sufferers was boxer Muhammad Ali. Symptoms include involuntary tremors in particular parts of the body, slow movements and stiff and inflexible muscles.
Sufferers aged under 50, like Lawton, are rare and have what is known as early onset Parkinson’s. Actor Michael J Fox was diagnosed with the disease at just 30 years old.
Scientists still aren’t sure exactly what leads to Parkinson’s disease, and there is no cure.
Earlier this year, Lawton and Zhang got together to test a prototype of the Emma Watch, and found that it slowed Lawton’s tremors enough that she could write her name for the first time in years. She then drew a straight line, and then a square.
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How does it work?
The device transmits vibrations into the arm, which distracts the brain from trying to control the limbs. The pattern of vibrations is controlled by an app on a device that is connected to the watch. Lawton can change the pattern to one that suits her best.
“It gives me some control there. The writing, it’s not going to be perfect. But my God, it’s better,” says Lawton.
Having appeared on the BBC’s Big Fix programme, Zhang has been inundated with requests for help, but the Emma Watch is, for now at least, just a prototype. Zhang is continuing her research and working with neuroscientists on clinical studies to take the invention further.
In recent years, scientists have developed new technology to help people with Parkinson’s disease. This wearable device helps sufferers monitor their symptoms, so that their doctors can alter their medication as appropriate.
In 2014, scientist Warren Grill won the Javits Neuroscience Investigator Award for his work on deep brain stimulation treatments. One patient in the study, who was in a wheelchair, was able to walk, make sandwiches, and even shovel snow after the implantation of Grill’s device.
You can watch Lawton and Zhang talking about the Emma Watch here.