Parkinson's disease, a progressive disorder of the nervous system, affects up to one million Americans and as many as ten million people worldwide. Approximately 60,000 new patients in America are diagnosed with Parkinson's every year.

Parkinson's disease is characterized by tremors, rigid muscles, slowed movements, slurred speech, and a decrease in involuntary motor functions. There is no cure for Parkinson's, but several drugs -- such as levodopa -- can manage the disease by boosting the brain's supply of dopamine.

Yet in recent years, researchers have discovered that new smart devices -- such as Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) iPhones, Google (NASDAQ:GOOG)(NASDAQ:GOOGL) Glass, and Medtronic's (NYSE:MDT) "brain pacemakers" -- can help identify and help manage potential symptoms of the disease.

Apple's iPhone can detect Parkinson's symptoms
Apple's iPhone is gaining prominence in medical use for two reasons. First, it's an ultra-portable computer with an onboard camera, motion sensors, and wireless connectivity. Second, its software and hardware configurations are identical across same-generation devices -- making it a simpler platform for app development than the fragmented world of Google Android devices.

In 2011, researchers at UCLA demonstrated how an iPhone's accelerometers could detect tremors in a patient's hand. The patient would wear a glove with the iPhone strapped to the top, and hold out his or her hand to get a reading. A customized app then collected the tremor data and delivered it via email to a physician for interpretation. Later that year, Digital Arts released Tremor-Meter, an iOS app based on the same concepts as the UCLA experiment.

Digital Arts' Tremor-Meter. Source: iTunes.

In 2013, Casa Futura released iParkinsons, an iOS app which detects and corrects changes in speech by improving articulation in patients. It does this by modifying how a user hears his or her own voice through the headphones. Changing the speed, pauses, and volume of a patient's speech increased the intelligibility of speech in subjects by two to six times, according to the company's studies.

Google Glass enters Parkinson's trials
As I mentioned in a previous article, Google Glass could eventually replace the iPhone as the ideal smart medical device for a simple reason -- it offers most of the benefits of the iPhone in a hands-free form that is ideal for medical workers.

Google Glass. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Therefore, it's not surprising that UK researchers are now studying Google Glass as a potential tool to help Parkinson's patients retain their independence longer. The trial, which is taking place in Newcastle University, uses Glass units donated by Google on volunteers 46 to 70 years of age.

In the study, Glass provides discreet prompts to patients, such as to speak up if their voice is too soft, to swallow at the right time, and to prevent drooling -- which are all associated with the overall slowdown in involuntary motor functions. The motion sensors in Glass can also support patients who experience "freezing" episodes, during which they are unable to move. Glass can even remind patients to take their medication on time -- a major problem with Parkinson's patients due to gradual slowdowns in their daily routines.

Medtronic's "brain pacemaker"
While the iPhone and Glass can help identify and correct for potential symptoms of Parkinson's disease, Medtronic's "brain pacemaker" could be a breakthrough in treating the disease.

Medtronic's Activa Neurostimulator, which is similar to a cardiac pacemaker, is implanted near the collarbone with very thin wires connected to the brain. The Activa Neurostimulator then delivers electric "deep brain stimulation" (DBS) to block certain brain signals which cause disabling motor problems.

A doctor modifies the electrical settings over a course of several sessions to reach the ideal configuration for each patient. According to Medtronic, the Activa Neurostimulator is ideal for patients on which levodopa and other treatments have lost their effectiveness.

Three models of the Activa -- the PC, RC, and SC. Source: Medtronic.

A newer version of the Activa, known as the Activa PC+S, was implanted in the first patient last August. It is the first DBS device which can sense and record brain activity while simultaneously providing targeted DBS therapy. This provides researchers with a more complete view of how the brain responds to DBS treatment, which could possibly lead to the development of a real-time closed loop -- in which a device intelligently modifies its electrical flow for certain conditions without physician assistance.

The Foolish takeaway
In closing, companies focusing on pharmaceutical treatments for Parkinson's disease only represent half of the big picture. We should realize just how much smart devices like Apple's iPhone, Google Glass, and Medtronic's brain pacemakers could also improve patients' lives in the future.