Using smartphones to detect Parkinson’s Disease before symptoms arise

By Reham Badawy, PhD student at Aston University, in collaboration with Dr. Max Little, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Smartphones and healthcare

Smartphones have become a pivotal tool in all aspects of our lives, impacting the way we communicate with one another and revolutionising the way in which we shop and bank. But what could be the impact of smartphones on healthcare? Smartphones are the perfect tool for monitoring an individual’s health because we carry them around with us everywhere we go, and so we can easily measure how symptoms fluctuate throughout the day. What if smartphones could be used as health monitoring tools to detect the early symptoms of a disease?

Smartphones come equipped with a large variety of sensors to enhance our user experience. A standard smartphone sensor known as an accelerometer, which measures movement, has been successful in distinguishing patients with Parkinson’s Disease from healthy individuals, solely by measuring their walking pattern.

Parkinson’s disease (PD) is a brain disease which significantly restricts voluntary movement. Symptoms include slowness of movement, trembling of the hands and legs, the resistance of the muscles to movement and loss of balance. Currently, we can only detect PD when the key movement problems of the disease are apparent during the late stages of the disease. Detecting the disease early on could help us find a cure, or treatments which slow down disease progression. Interestingly, individuals who do not display any symptoms, but are at risk of developing PD (due to a genetic mutation, for example) have been found to display very subtle movement problems in their walking pattern. The ability of smartphone sensors to detect these subtle movement problems has not yet been investigated.

Using smartphones to detect PD before diagnosis

We aim to distinguish individuals at risk of developing PD from risk-free individuals by analysing their walking pattern measured using a smartphone accelerometer. Users download a smartphone app, place their smartphone in their pocket, and walk in a straight line for 30 seconds, while the smartphone accelerometer records their walking pattern.

Next, we aim to mathematically simulate the underlying neural dynamics of an area in the brain called the basal ganglia (BG), which contributes to the subtle movement problems observed in the walking pattern of patients with PD. Using this as input into a mathematical model of the mechanics of human walking, we aim to recreate the accelerometer readings from the smartphone.

Simulating the user’s walking pattern via modelling the BG, and using it as input into a biomechanical model of human walking.

Once we have recreated the user’s walking pattern, we can examine the BG model to see whether it is predictive of PD. If it is predictive of PD, and we observe subtle movement problems in the user’s walking pattern, we can classify an individual as being at risk of developing PD.

In cases in which the evidence does not match, for example, when we observe subtle movement problems in an individual’s walking pattern but the information drawn from the BG does not indicate PD, we can dismiss the results in order to prevent a misdiagnosis.

Our approach aims to provide insight into an individual’s brain deterioration through their walking pattern, so that their health status can be based on a plausible link between their physical and biological characteristics.


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What is dining going to look like in the future?

By Professor Les Firbank FRSB, University of Leeds.
Professor Firbank is speaking on the expert panel at today’s 
Come Dine With The Future event, organised by the RSB and NRN-LCEE in Cardiff.

We know that our meals change over time; we are now offered a range of dishes far greater than at any time in history. For tonight’s challenge of creating a ‘future menu’, I thought, let’s not look too far ahead. In a few decades time dining will not have changed in the way it looks and tastes – but perhaps the way it’s produced.

There’s a lot of demand for food that is tasty, sustainable and ethically produced. So what might satisfy this demand at a time of climate change and increasing focus on local food production, whether for ethical reasons or to avoid post-Brexit tariffs? Read more »

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Clathrin: maintaining cell health in geometric style

By Dr Corinne Smith, reader in structural biology and biophysics, and director of the Research Technology Platform in Advanced Bioimaging at the University of Warwick. Dr Smith was recently awarded a Royal Society Leverhulme Trust Senior Research Fellowship for her work on clathrin.

I am intrigued by a protein called clathrin. It consumes my interest in a unique way and has done for quite a large number of years. Why would something as functional as a protein prove such an attractive object of study?

Clathrin cage structures. Kyle Morris and Corinne Smith, University of Warwick

The first reason is that it is actually attractive to look at.  It has the unusual property of being able to form geometric lattices both as part of its function in cells and in a test tube as purified protein. Geometric structures are surprising to see in nature. When they do occur they look, well, unnatural. Just look at the lattice structures formed by these fungi, indusiata and clathrus ruber.

Indusiata and clathrus ruber

We expect biological material to be messy and irregular, and of course this often appears to be the case.

Read more »

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Targeting Antimicrobial Resistance

By Josephine Hellberg MRSB, DPhil Physiology, Anatomy and Genetics student at the University of Oxford and science policy intern at the Royal Society of Biology.
Take part in a tweetchat on AMR from 15:00 – 16:00 GMT on Friday 18th November by following and tweeting with #AntibioticFuture

This week is World Antibiotic Awareness Week 2016; which has been highlighted with the intention of increasing global awareness of the threat of antimicrobial resistance (AMR) and the importance of interventions to reduce antimicrobial use.

Antimicrobials are drugs that target infectious micro-organisms (microbes), such as bacteria and fungi, but also organisms such as the malaria parasite. The discovery of antimicrobials was one of the most important medical breakthroughs of the 20th century: reducing the incidence of infectious disease and revolutionising medical science; allowing procedures such as invasive surgery and cancer therapy to become commonplace.

Antimicrobials can be natural or synthetic. They are called ‘antibiotics’ when they are produced by other micro-organisms, making antibiotics a natural part of ecosystem microbe-microbe interactions. However, this also means that AMR is a natural, biological phenomenon that is hard to avoid. As a result, increased antimicrobial use goes hand in hand with increased AMR. Indeed, AMR is now so common that doctors, scientists and governments warn that it represents one of the biggest challenges of the 21st century. Read more »

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Diversity in Science: creating an inclusive environment

By Gabriele Butkute AMRSB, science policy officer at the Royal Society of Biology and the Biochemical Society

The Royal Society’s Annual Diversity Conference, ‘Diversity Matters – the road to inclusivity’ provided an uplifting environment to learn about initiatives in a range of workplaces. Meeting representatives from across the science sector, including from education and government, who are dedicated to improving diversity, was a hugely motivational and informative experience.

The Royal Society

Andrew Parker, director general of MI5, gave an enlightening keynote explaining how diversity is essential to UK security as, ‘the richest mix of people equals the best talent.’ MI5 received the top position in Stonewall’s top 100 employers’ list earlier this year, for good practice in its support for LGBT employees.

We also heard from Network Rail, Stonewall, Employers Network for Equality and Inclusion, Equality Challenge Unit, National Diversity Awards and the University of York; all of whom shared their experiences and tips on how to create an inclusive and welcoming environment for staff and volunteers. Read more »

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What if you shared your food with others?

By Diane Fresquez, an American food science journalist living in Brussels, and the author of ‘A Taste of Molecules: In Search of the Secrets of Flavour’.
Diane will be chairing the RSB’s event, Come Dine with the Future, in Cardiff on Wednesday 30th November.

From food waste to expanding waistlines, we are experiencing a global food crisis that is too complicated and far-gone for us to ever change. Or is it? Here are some of the facts from the UN:

  • 1.3 billion tonnes of food is wasted every year while almost 1 billion people go undernourished and another 1 billion hungry.
  • Overconsumption of food is detrimental to our health and the environment.
  • Two billion people globally are overweight or obese.
  • Land degradation, declining soil fertility, unsustainable water use, overfishing and marine environment degradation are all lessening the ability of the natural resource base to supply food.
  • The food sector accounts for around 30 per cent of the world’s total energy consumption and accounts for around 22 per cent of total greenhouse gas emissions.

The Hansalim food cooperative, South Korea

Although the situation looks grim, one way to tackle the problem is through food sharing: an emergent, expanding global movement that can conserve resources, cut waste, improve nutrition and strengthen communities. But what exactly is food sharing, and where is it happening?

Share City
 Ireland is a European Research Council-funded project that is assessing the practice and sustainability potential of city-based food sharing economies. The sheer depth and breadth of food sharing around the globe is astonishing, and includes the sharing of everything from food products and meals, to plants and seeds, knowledge and skills, compost and land, kitchen devices and kitchen space. Read more »

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Visit to an animal research facility

By Dr Laura Marshall MRCVS MRSB, science policy manager at the Royal Society of Biology

Kings College London (KCL) invited RSB representatives to its Guy’s Campus recently, for a tour of their animal research facilities. This was one of a series of visits, organised through Understanding Animal Research, to help explain what happens at the facility to visitors of all ages and levels of understanding. The initiative shares the ethos of the Concordat on Openness on Animal Research. This is an agreement signed by 107 UK universities, charities, commercial companies, umbrella bodies and learned societies; pledging their commitment to be open with the public about animal research. Both KCL and the RSB are signatories and in December 2015, KCL won an award in the second year of the scheme.

Our guide was Stephen Woodley, site manager for the Biological Services at Guy’s Campus, which includes three animal research facilities. As the 2016 UK recipient of the AAALAC International Fellowship Award, an experienced Named Animal Care and Welfare Officer (NACWO) and IAT Registered Animal Technologist (RAnTech), Stephen was well placed to provide honest and informed answers to any question we posed. We found the research facilities within the Biological Services buildings to be ordered, clean and calm. The animal care staff, whilst welcoming, were busy, with an air of efficiency and evident pride in doing their work well.

Before entering each facility, we donned fresh personal protective gear (a combination of overshoes, hair net and coat), which equally aimed to protect the animals from any infectious agents carried by us. Read more »

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The fantastic red fox

By Martin Hemmington, National Fox Welfare Society.
Read blogs about the other mammals in the #UKMammalPoll and vote for your Favourite UK Mammal.

A master of adaptability, survivor against the odds, and an animal that divides opinion across the UK: the red fox has now taken over from the gray wolf as being the most widely distributed terrestrial mammal. It can survive and thrive in both town and country and has become a familiar sight for many.

Foxes are not invading our gardens, it is us, with our need for ever more housing, who are actually invading theirs! People never question observations of wild birds or hedgehogs in their gardens, but often ask, ‘What are foxes doing in towns and cities, when they belong in the countryside?’ Others will feed birds and hedgehogs, recognising it may be difficult in certain months for them to secure enough natural food. The opposite is true of the fox, which people are often wary of feeding so as not to encourage return visits or breeding.

However, foxes play a very important role in our towns and cities which we very rarely give them credit for. The red fox is not only our urban street cleaner but also our natural pest controller; eating discarded food that would otherwise attract rats and mice, and predating on both. Read more »

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Beaver ballot: why we should give a dam

By Dr Alan Law, freshwater science researcher, University of Stirling.
Read blogs about the other mammals in the #UKMammalPoll and vote for your Favourite UK Mammal.

Beaver feeding on white water lilies © Philip Price

The Eurasian beaver (Castor fiber) has recently been reintroduced on a trial basis to England and Scotland. Yet its future remains on a knife edge. Their new presence has provoked both positive and negative reactions, principally due to their response to a simple environmental cue, the sound of running water. And it is this response that is one of the most remarkable in the animal kingdom.

If you live in freshwaters you need to be able to cope with fluctuating water levels, this is especially true of rivers and streams, where the heights can rise and fall quickly over a few hours. The entrance and exit to a beavers’ bankside home, a lodge created from sticks and mud, must remain underwater so land-based predators (badgers, wolves, bears) cannot enter. The sound of rushing of water stimulates beavers to intertwine stones, sticks, mud and vegetation in the stream, thereby raising and stabilising the water level. Through dam creation beavers now have an element of control of their habitat.  Read more »

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