Microsoft have created a one-of-a-kind watch that is able to “hack the brain” in people with Parkinson’s disease and help calm tremors that prevent them from doing daily activities.
The ‘Build 2017’ project has been such a success that one person has had her ability to write restored while wearing the device.
Parkinson’s disease is a condition in which parts of the brain become progressively damaged over many years, and symptoms include involuntary shaking of parts of the body, slow movement and stiff and inflexible muscles.
This causes the brain to fire off extra signals to the muscles, creating a chaotic internal feedback loop that causes muscles to panic.
Researcher Haiyan Zhang, 39, at Microsoft decided to work on developing a device to help with this after befriending graphic designer Emma Lawton, 33, who was diagnosed with the neurological condition back in 2013.
Due to the severity of her tremors, Lawton has been unable to write and sketch, and has not legibly written her name for the past couple of years.
So Zhang, who previously lead an innovation team in one of the Xbox gaming studios, decided to see if she could create a prototype that would counteract the tremors, using small motorized vibrations.
She explained her theory, saying: “It’s like injecting white noise into that feedback loop in order to disrupt it.”
After several months of testing, a wearable version was ready, Lawton said: “I could see she was scared. I felt like I was going to cry. But you always have that little hope that somebody is going to make something that’s going to make your life a little easier.”
Distracted by the vibration, Lawton was able to write her name, explaining: “The device doesn’t stop my tremor. It gives me some control there. The writing, it’s not going to be perfect. But, my God, it’s better.
“I have actually just written my name for the first time in ages.”
It is thought around 1 in 500 people are affected by Parkinson’s disease, which means there are an estimated 127,000 people in the UK with the condition, according to the NHS.
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Zhang’s team are also working on other tech for good projects, including a project called Fizzyo, a connected device for kids with Cystic Fibrosis that turns their daily physiotherapy exercises into a video game experience.
And Project Torino, a set of physical blocks that helps children with visual impairments learn computer programming.
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