High School Student Develops App to Detect Parkinson’s and ET

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High school student Erin Smith has developed an app that helps to diagnose Parkinson’s disease and possibly other neurological conditions through facial recognition. She serves as an example of how young people are stepping up to invest themselves in making a difference in the lives of others through their ingenuity and motivation. Here is her story.

By Erin Smith.
Senior at Shawnee Mission West High School
Overland Park, Kansas

About two years ago, I was watching a video by the Michael J. Fox Foundation when I noticed that whenever Michael J. Fox or another Parkinson’s disease patient would smile or laugh, it came off as emotionally distant. Further, as I talked to Parkinson’s caretakers and clinicians, they reported similar observations in their loved ones years before diagnosis. As I read medical studies, I found that the often overlooked sections of the brain that undergo the earliest changes in Parkinson’s patients are the same parts involved in the formation of facial expressions.

My mind instantly went back to a TV show I had watched as a child called Lie to Me,  where a deception expert would solve crimes by studying facial expressions to determine if people were lying. I wondered if facial expressions could have similar health care implications and provide external manifestations of neurological pathology. 

FacePrint App is Born
I then launched a study in partnership with the Michael J. Fox Foundation Trial Finder to expand my research on a national level. Using the data I collected, I developed FacePrint, a tool to diagnose and monitor Parkinson’s disease using the early stage facial muscle indicators that I identified. FacePrint provides an inexpensive, remote tool for early stage Parkinson’s disease, requiring only a computer and webcam. Further, FacePrint is compatible with facial recognition used by Snapchat and Facebook, creating a selfie that could save your life.

Differentiating Between Parkinson’s and ET
However, after developing FacePrint, I quickly began to notice distinct facial movement differences in patients with other neurological diseases. I started formulating the idea that facial behavioral biomarkers could non-invasively differentiate between Parkinson’s disease and Essential Tremor patients. My new mission has become to create a robust, differential diagnostic and monitoring tool for Parkinson’s disease and Essential Tremor patients. It is my hope that developing accurate diagnostic and monitoring systems for these two diseases will lead to improved, earlier treatment options and ultimately a cure.

Ridding the World of Neurological Disorders
Beyond my goals for my research from a medical perspective, I also hope to create a source of hope.

I firmly believe that change occurs on an individual level. It is one person doing one thing different one time. It is one person caring about one topic and doing everything that he or she can to make a difference in that area. It is one person taking one step forward one time.

I believe that the journey towards a cure for Essential Tremor and Parkinson’s disease will follow the same pattern. However, while change occurs on an individual basis, impact occurs when we all come together to leverage that change. My work is just one piece of the larger puzzle. We must all come together and put the pieces together. It will take everyone devoting their time, efforts, and stories to lead to a day when Parkinson’s disease and Essential Tremor are cured conditions. Although it is easy to become discouraged, my research has filled me with a deep sense of optimism for our future. There are researchers, patients, caretakers, clinicians, and everyday citizens around the world who are making remarkable progress and strides in this field. We are not marching alone. Rather, we are marching hand-in-hand, striving towards the day when our collective impact will create a world without neurological disorders.

YOU CAN PARTICIPATE IN ERIN’S STUDY

Erin is expanding her original research to include essential tremor and persons with no neurological disorders to determine if this test (her app) can easily differentiate between the two, possibly saving patients years of misdiagnosis. The study takes about 10-15 minutes and requires a computer with a webcam. It typically works best on Chrome, which can be easily downloaded online if not already installed (see link below). If you have ET or Parkinson’s Disease please take this test and please encourage your friends and family members without either disease to participate as well.

ET Has Affected 5 Generations in My Family

By Shari Finsilver,
VP of the IETF Board of Directors

Increasing awareness about essential tremor (ET) has been my passion for almost 20 years.  But, I must confess … I was not very open about my tremors prior to this. In fact, I did everything imaginable to hide them, even from my parents!

My courage came from all the members of my support group. It is often said that when we volunteer, we get much more back than we give. Well, that was so true in my case when I decided to start a support group in Michigan in 2000. I marveled at the candor, courage, and self-pride in many of those members and, eventually, decided to follow their lead to become more open about my own ET.

Joining the IETF Board
When I was invited to join the IETF Board of Directors in 2001, I found another platform that I could use to further raise awareness, while also getting involved in education programs, fundraising, and research. I am committed to expanding the work of the IETF, the most recognized organization helping ET patients and families.

ET began challenging my life at 11 years old. I’ve heard it said that those of us with ET are much more intelligent and creative. Well, I’m not sure I would go so far as to say that … but I did become very creative in developing ways to cope with these troubling tremors! When the IETF compiled a list of coping tips, I was able to share all of mine with all of you.

The Choice to Have DBS Surgery
After having lived with increasingly challenging ET for almost 40 years, I decided to have deep-brain stimulation (DBS) surgery in 1999. DBS changed my life.

ET has, so far as I know, affected five generations in my family. I will continue to do everything in my power to help those of us with ET get more effective medical treatments, increase awareness so the public doesn’t misjudge and label us, better educate the medical community, and fund research that will discover a cure.

Join Us to Help Raise ET Awareness
I hope I can count on each of you to do something that helps the ET community. So many great ideas are listed on the IETF website. If all of us raise our voices about ET, we can educate the world.

 

 

Being a Child with ET is Like Being a Tiny Sapling in a Windstorm

By Allison Dyke,
Student at Kuyper College

Allison Dyke

Having essential tremor is like being a tree with leaves shaking uncontrollably in the wind. Even though your roots are strong, you are unable to control the movement of your branches.
However, being a child with essential tremor is like being a tiny sapling stuck in a powerful windstorm. You are not fully developed and your roots have not been completely planted.

ET Diagnosis
Since the age of four, I have battled with essential tremor. My shaky hands and legs made tasks such as eating, tying shoes, and riding bikes difficult to complete. I was just learning how to do these activities, which can be challenging without having a movement disorder. While these tasks were strenuous, the hardest part about being a child with essential tremor was other children and adults jumped to conclusions without understanding what essential tremor is.

“She’s just stubborn,” was often coldly stated to my parents as an explanation of why I was failing at making a perfect bow with my shoelaces. If I wasn’t being “stubborn” I must be either nervous or cold. Fine motor skills were frustrating to master and I became withdrawn from participating in physical activities. It was hard to understand why I couldn’t do what other children my age could do. With supportive parents, I was encouraged to never give up. The saying at my house is, “Where there is a will, there is a way.”

Soon I found an activity where shaking didn’t matter, swimming. It helped rebuild the confidence that this disorder had taken away. I found ways around difficult tasks, such as using assistive devices to improve my penmanship or supporting my elbow when applying makeup. It was clear that the physical and emotional effects of essential tremor were not going to dictate my future.

Connecting with the IETF
Then at sixteen, I discovered the International Essential Tremor Foundation, and wish I would have found them sooner. Their website provided informational downloads that I gave to my teachers and school administrators, so they could better understand this disorder. I connected with other kids my age who were going through the same experiences. IETF encouraged me to reach out to my community by organizing awareness walks and starting a support group. And they provided me with a college scholarship. With their support, I have met wonderful people who understand what having tremors is all about and I know I am not alone.

Now I’m nineteen and people still ask if I’m cold or nervous. But, I’ve learned that sharing my experience and educating others about essential tremor gives me an opportunity to explain that this condition is not just for older adults, but impacts young people as well. An estimated 10 million people in the United States are affected by this condition, yet very few have heard of it or understand it’s impact. Through awareness, I’m no longer a tiny sapling; I am strong oak supported by a dense forest away from the wind.

Editor’s Note
Allison is one of thousands of children and young adults around the world who struggle to live normal lives with essential tremor. She is a former IETF Scholarship Recipient. The scholarship program is one of many support programs conducted by the IETF. Your donations help support these programs and people with essential tremor. Donate today. 

No Boundaries, No Favorites. Essential Tremor Has No Familiar Face.

By Tammy Dodderidge, IETF Marketing and Communications Manager

Who do you picture in your mind when you think about someone who has essential tremor? Chances are, it’s a senior adult or a grandparent. The reality is essential tremor has no familiar face. It afflicts people all ages and races. While senior adults struggle with it, so do middle-aged adults, teens and even toddlers. It doesn’t discriminate based on the color of your hair, or eyes or skin.

This is our message during National Essential Tremor Awareness (NETA) Month in March. We want people to understand that ET has no boundaries. It doesn’t play favorites. It is a serious, debilitating condition for more than 10 million people around the world.

Background on NETA Month
Thanks to a three-year effort by the International Essential Tremor Foundation (IETF), in 2010 Congress passed a House resolution that officially designates March as National Essential Tremor Awareness Month. This month gives ET a platform. Most people have heard of Parkinson’s disease and the physical tremors associated with it, but not many have heard of essential tremor. We need to let them know it exists and then educate them about the needs of people with ET.

The next time you are in a crowd, look around and chances are, someone there has ET. You won’t know it because it’s something that people work hard to hide. You won’t know it because people are embarrassed by it. You won’t know it because people fight it and deny it. You won’t know it because many people who have ET suffer depression and isolate themselves so they don’t even leave their houses.

Take Action
What can you do to take part in NETA Month? Many, many things!

  • The IETF has created some special NETA Month social media banners specifically for Facebook and Twitter. Download them from our website and use them on your social media sites during the month of March (as the cover art or just share them with your friends and followers).
  • Order one of our NETA Month posters and hang it in a prominent area where people will notice it: your church, the grocery store, the library, your office. When someone asks, “What’s this poster? What is essential tremor?” you will have done your job in raising awareness!
  • Watch this Tremor Talk blog site during March. We will be featuring some guest writers who have ET, work in the ET community and advocate for people with ET. Their first-hand stories promise to be insightful and educational – and heartfelt. Share these blogs on your social media sites, or send the links to your friends by email. RAISE AWARENESS!
  • Hold a Do It Yourself (DIY) Fundraiser to support the work the IETF does toward education, research and advocacy. We have a list of DIY fund raising ideas on our website, and we also have special DIY  fund raising posters you can order from us for free to advertise your events.
  • Watch your mail for a letter from the IETF and make a donation to receive an NETA Month t-shirt and/or tote bag. These items are one more way to get ET in the public eye. Wear your shirt proudly and use your tote when shopping, or for carrying items to and from work. If you are not on our mailing list, you can join our mailing list online.

Once we all begin to see ET as a condition that impacts millions of people all over the world, we will begin to realize the need for more research that will lead to new treatments, and hopefully someday, a way to prevent or cure it for everyone.

Speak up, speak out and let’s rock this year’s NETA Month!