Assisting Parkinson’s Patients With Innovative Motion-tracking Device

A rough estimate of the amount of steps taken in a day might be enough for the average fitness tracker or smartwatch user, but, for people with movement disorders like Parkinson’s disease, more fine-grained data could be life changing.

As two of the four winners of the inaugural President’s Innovation Prize, Penn seniors Alfredo Muniz and Sade Oba in the School of Engineering and Applied Science aim to make that vision a reality.

Their start-up company, XEED, makes wearable sensors that track the movement of their user’s limbs throughout the day. Doctors, physical therapists and their patients can use this data as part of treatment regimes to monitor progress and set goals.

The duo’s combined interest in health and engineering started well before they got to Penn. Growing up in Houston, Oba and Muniz met at a summer program for students interested in STEM before attending Michael E. DeBakey High School for Health Professions.

The idea behind XEED originated in a conversation Muniz had with Jonathan M. Smith, the Olga and Alberico Pompa Professor of Computer and Information Science. Smith suggested that the sensors used in the team’s senior design project would be well suited for precisely tracking bodily movements and that data could be useful in a medical context.

Parkinson’s disease was a clear choice.

“People with Parkinson's have trouble controlling their movements because their brains don’t produce enough of the neurotransmitter dopamine, but a way to get around that is to really force your body to do more than it’s used to doing,” Muniz says. “That produces more dopamine, and it becomes easier. But there’s currently no objective way to measure those movements in physical therapy.”

Though they are worn on the wrists and ankles, XEED bands’ suite of sensors and algorithms allows them to work out the movements of the elbow and shoulder and of the knee and hip.

As these algorithms are drawn from the ones that help medical robotic arms perform precise surgeries, it was only natural that Muniz and Oba sought guidance from Michelle J. Johnson, director of the Rehabilitation Robotics Lab at Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine.

“She is using robots, while we’re using principles from robotics,” Oba says. “But we all are interested in creating a new therapy experience.”

XEED is also working with the Dan Aaron Parkinson’s Rehabilitation Center at Good Shepherd Penn Partners, speaking to physical therapists about what they and their patients could most benefit from. Going forward, those therapists will be a gateway to patients themselves, who ideally will help beta test the next iteration of XEED’s devices.

Assisting Parkinson’s Patients With Innovative Motion-tracking Device