In the U.S. alone, approximately 60,000 people are diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease every year. A student team led by Justin Schwartzseid, E’17, who has an uncle with the disease, wants to do something to help them deal with its effects—tremors, stiffness, gait changes, loss of balance, and cognitive impairment
Enter StartGait, a wearable device aimed at, as Schwartzseid puts it, “keeping Parkinson’s patients moving.”
Parkinson’s stems from the loss of brain cells, or neurons, in an area of the brain called the substantia nigra, which is located in the limbic system, a part of the brain that deals with emotions and memories. These neurons produce dopamine, a brain chemical involved in movement control. Hence patients often experience what’s called a “freezing of gait,” or FOG, where they have difficulty initiating movements.
“StartGait provides a visual and rhythmic cue to help people break out of that freezing,” says Schwartseid.
Resembling a large can of tuna measuring 4.5 inches in diameter and 1.5 inches thick, StartGait attaches at the hip with a clip. Packed with sensors, accelerometers, gyroscopes, and magnetometers, the device uses algorithms to predict FOG episodes. When one registers, it shoots out a laser beam on the ground for the user to walk toward as well as a metronome-like sound to spur his or her forward progress.
“Such external cues have been found helpful in bringing about movement in people with Parkinson’s,” says Schwartzseid. “We want to help those with the disease live as normal a life as possible.”