Parkinson’s disease affects almost a million Americans; famous sufferers of the neurodegenerative disease include the actor Michael J. Fox, boxer Muhammad Ali and former Attorney General Janet Reno. As many as 60,000 new cases are diagnosed each year. The condition occurs when dopamine-producing cells in the brain become damaged due to a protein called alpha-synuclein. This causes clumps of cells called Lewy bodies to form.
The most common and the clearest effect of the disease is the loss of motor control. Studies have found ways to slow this process and possible regain some degree of lost function. Weight training has been shown to help slow the loss of motor control in many patients. Tai chi also appears to have beneficial effects. However, a lot of research is focused on helping people adapt.
Now technology is helping Parkinson’s patients in one of the most important areas of day-to-day life: eating. People with Parkinson’s sometimes have trouble getting enough to eat when symptoms make it difficult for them to get food to their mouths. Tremors can move the hand as much as an inch off course, making precise motions difficult and tiring. To address this, the same mechanisms that make it possible for someone using a digital camera to get a steady shot have been adapted into a special spoon that corrects for the effects of eating with shaky hands.
A stabilization system in the handle can detect vibration in real time, and move the bowl of the spoon at the same speed but in opposite direction, compensating for the initial movement. The inventors say the spoon cancels out more than 70 percent of tremors, making it possible for people to eat despite tremors. The spoon uses computer models of normal movement to help distinguish intended from unintended motions. The bowl is detachable for washing. The electronics in the spoon handle can also be used to measure and record tremors. This information can then be synchronized with a computer program, allowing people with the condition to have a record of ow bad the tremors are, if they’re getting worse or better, and how rapidly.