High school student Erin Smith has developed an app that helps to diagnose Parkinson’s disease and possibly other neurological conditions through facial recognition. She serves as an example of how young people are stepping up to invest themselves in making a difference in the lives of others through their ingenuity and motivation. Here is her story.
By Erin Smith.
Senior at Shawnee Mission West High School
Overland Park, Kansas
About two years ago, I was watching a video by the Michael J. Fox Foundation when I noticed that whenever Michael J. Fox or another Parkinson’s disease patient would smile or laugh, it came off as emotionally distant. Further, as I talked to Parkinson’s caretakers and clinicians, they reported similar observations in their loved ones years before diagnosis. As I read medical studies, I found that the often overlooked sections of the brain that undergo the earliest changes in Parkinson’s patients are the same parts involved in the formation of facial expressions.
My mind instantly went back to a TV show I had watched as a child called Lie to Me, where a deception expert would solve crimes by studying facial expressions to determine if people were lying. I wondered if facial expressions could have similar health care implications and provide external manifestations of neurological pathology.
FacePrint App is Born
I then launched a study in partnership with the Michael J. Fox Foundation Trial Finder to expand my research on a national level. Using the data I collected, I developed FacePrint, a tool to diagnose and monitor Parkinson’s disease using the early stage facial muscle indicators that I identified. FacePrint provides an inexpensive, remote tool for early stage Parkinson’s disease, requiring only a computer and webcam. Further, FacePrint is compatible with facial recognition used by Snapchat and Facebook, creating a selfie that could save your life.
Differentiating Between Parkinson’s and ET
However, after developing FacePrint, I quickly began to notice distinct facial movement differences in patients with other neurological diseases. I started formulating the idea that facial behavioral biomarkers could non-invasively differentiate between Parkinson’s disease and Essential Tremor patients. My new mission has become to create a robust, differential diagnostic and monitoring tool for Parkinson’s disease and Essential Tremor patients. It is my hope that developing accurate diagnostic and monitoring systems for these two diseases will lead to improved, earlier treatment options and ultimately a cure.
Ridding the World of Neurological Disorders
Beyond my goals for my research from a medical perspective, I also hope to create a source of hope.
I firmly believe that change occurs on an individual level. It is one person doing one thing different one time. It is one person caring about one topic and doing everything that he or she can to make a difference in that area. It is one person taking one step forward one time.
I believe that the journey towards a cure for essential tremor and Parkinson’s disease will follow the same pattern. However, while change occurs on an individual basis, impact occurs when we all come together to leverage that change. My work is just one piece of the larger puzzle. We must all come together and put the pieces together. It will take everyone devoting their time, efforts, and stories to lead to a day when Parkinson’s disease and Essential Tremor are cured conditions. Although it is easy to become discouraged, my research has filled me with a deep sense of optimism for our future. There are researchers, patients, caretakers, clinicians, and everyday citizens around the world who are making remarkable progress and strides in this field. We are not marching alone. Rather, we are marching hand-in-hand, striving towards the day when our collective impact will create a world without neurological disorders.