Can typos help diagnose early onset Parkinson’s?

Analyzing people’s keystrokes as they type on a computer keyboard can reveal a great deal of information about the state of their motor function, according to a new study from MIT.

In a paper appearing in Scientific Reports, the researchers found that their algorithm for analyzing keystrokes could distinguish between typing done in the middle of the night, when sleep deprivation impairs motor skills, and typing performed when fully rested.

The study, which grew out of the Madrid-MIT M+Vision Consortium, is based on the premise that “there might be hidden information in the way that we type,” says Ian Butterworth, one of the authors and an M+Vision fellow. “At the moment, pretty much all of the other information in typing is thrown out. We just pay attention to what keys are being pressed, not when or for how long.”

While this study focused on the effects of fatigue, it also represents a first step toward using keystroke patterns to diagnose conditions that impair motor function, such as Parkinson’s disease, much earlier than is now possible, the researchers say.

Preliminary results from a study of about two dozen Parkinson’s patients suggest that the researchers’ algorithm for analyzing keystrokes can also distinguish people who have the disease from those who don’t. The team is now planning a larger study of Parkinson’s patients.

M+Vision fellows Luca Giancardo, Alvaro Sanchez-Ferro, and Carlos Sanchez Mendoza are also authors of the paper, along with Jacob Hooker, an associate professor of radiology at Harvard Medical School.

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