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How smartphone typing patterns can track neurodegenerative disease

How smartphone typing patterns...
Research suggests changes in keystroke patterns over time could indicate progression of neurological diseases such as MS
Research suggests changes in keystroke patterns over time could indicate progression of neurological diseases such as MS
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Research suggests changes in keystroke patterns over time could indicate progression of neurological diseases such as MS
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Research suggests changes in keystroke patterns over time could indicate progression of neurological diseases such as MS

A new study, published in the journal Chaos, is suggesting tracking changes over time in the way multiple sclerosis (MS) patients type on their smartphone touchscreens could be a useful method to monitor neurological degeneration.

Typing on a keyboard is a relatively complex activity involving a number of different brain regions all effectively working together. From the overall speed one types to the micro-pauses between individual keystrokes, small changes in these dynamics over time can be helpful early warning signs of neurodegenerative disease progression.

Researchers from the Amsterdam University Medical Center have now developed a smartphone app designed to passively track changes in a user’s keystroke dynamics over time. The new study recruited a small number of MS patients and healthy control subjects. The cohort was tracked for 12 months to see if changes to keystroke dynamics correlated with the degenerative progression of the disease.

"In chronic diseases like MS and Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease, there is inherent worsening over time," explains James Twose, an author on the new study. "When it comes to typing, you need all your faculties to do this well. We notice when you have problems with that."

The results of this preliminary study confirmed quantifiable changes in keystroke dynamics coincided with clinically relevant changes in MS disease activity. Twose suggests these results are only the first step in creating a clinically useful smartphone app and future refinements will be necessary to better personalize the system to each individual user.

The study notes, for example, some users may consistently type very similar messages of low complexity, meaning changes in keystroke dynamics could be more subtle compared to those with more complex or diverse keystroke patterns.

"The dream is prediction," says Twose. "If there is some semblance of predictability, the joy would be to forecast the disease in a similar way you do with weather."

The new study is certainly not without precedent. A team from MIT has been working on a similar technology for several years, focusing on keystroke analysis to detect Parkinson’s disease degeneration. More generally there is ongoing research looking at a variety of ways passive smartphone data can be used to track the progression of neurodegenerative disease.

One ongoing project, called Floodlight Open, is recruiting MS patients to download a custom-made app designed to measure cognitive and performance changes over time using a number of different passive and active tasks.

The new study was published in the journal Chaos.

Source: American Institute of Physics

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