Parkinson’s sufferer Michael J Fox inspired 15-year-old to create a new program to spot disease




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Teenager, 19, creates new test to find brain diseases 10 years early after ‘eureka’ moment watching Parkinson’s sufferer Michael J Fox in Back To The Future

  • Erin Smith, 19, developed a computer program that can spot Parkinson’s disease
  • She was inspired by actor Michael J. Fox as she watched his facial expressions
  • His face lacked emotion, his smile drooped and eyebrows were upturned 
  • Erin learned code from scratch from the age of 15 to develop the program 

He is the star of the blockbuster Back To The Future films who was told he had Parkinson’s disease aged just 29.

Now actor Michael J. Fox has inspired a brilliant teenager – a huge fan of the movies – to invent a way to spot the condition ten years earlier than is usually the case.

Erin Smith was 15 when she had her ‘eureka’ moment while watching footage of the actor.

Erin Smith, now 19, learned how to code from scratch and within a year she had created a prototype that could identify telltale clues using video footage

Erin Smith, now 19, learned how to code from scratch and within a year she had created a prototype that could identify telltale clues using video footage

She saw how, as a result of the neurological disease, Fox’s facial expressions lacked emotion even when he was enthused. Like other sufferers, he also had a droopy smile and upturned eyebrow.

Looking back through Fox’s work, Erin saw how his expressions started to change even before he was diagnosed in 1991 – six years after the first film in the series.

Keen to devise a computer programme to spot people with early signs of the disease, Erin learned how to code from scratch. Within a year she had created a prototype that could identify telltale clues using video footage.

Similar facial recognition technology is used to scan CCTV images for faces of known criminals, but Erin’s programme had a ‘machine learning’ capacity to get continually better at spotting the signs of Parkinson’s.

The Michael J. Fox Foundation, which backs research to find a cure for the disease, funded two pilot studies, which concluded Erin’s FacePrint programme was 88 per cent accurate at distinguishing Parkinson’s sufferers from healthy people. Erin, now 19, outlined FacePrint during a Dragons’ Den-style pitch at a conference in London last week run by tech magazine Wired.

Actor Michael J. Fox inspired Erin Smith – a huge fan of the movies – to invent a way to spot the condition ten years earlier than is usually the case

Actor Michael J. Fox inspired Erin Smith – a huge fan of the movies – to invent a way to spot the condition ten years earlier than is usually the case

She told The Mail on Sunday: ‘I have always been a big fan of Back To The Future. After having the initial idea, I was able to look at old footage to see when Michael’s facial differences occurred. And as I searched through past medical papers, I found that the parts of the brain that experience the earliest changes in Parkinson’s are the same parts involved in facial expression formation.’

Major signs such as tremor and difficulty walking do not occur until up to 20 years after onset.

Ms Smith, from Kansas, is now planning a ‘crowdsourcing’ trial to refine the programme. It is backed by Stanford University, where she has won a place to study computer science and neuroscience.

Professor David Dexter, of the charity Parkinson’s UK, said: ‘Earlier detection would not only enable people to take control, but could lead to the development of new and better treatments.’ 



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