Spotting Parkinson’s disease earlier through AI: Erin Smith named Young Inventors prize 2022 finalist
- Erin Smith named as one of three finalists of a new prize awarded by the European Patent Office (EPO) for her AI-powered tool enabling early detection of Parkinson's disease
- The natural born scientist developed an algorithm that analyses videos of facial expressions to pick up minute indicators of early-onset Parkinson's, with around 95% accuracy
- Her technology, inspired by videos of Michael J. Fox, can also help people with other neural disorders similar to Parkinson's
Munich, 24 May 202 2 - US inventor Erin Smith has been shortlisted as a finalist in the inaugural Young Inventors prize given by the European Patent Office (EPO) for her AI-powered app that enables early detection of Parkinson's disease. The natural born scientist built on a childhood interest in facial expressions to create technology that could help delay the development of serious Parkinson's symptoms, such as tremors and walking difficulties, through early intervention.
The app, called FacePrint, takes video footage of facial expressions and applies facial recognition and AI techniques to quickly and accurately pick up minute indicators of the early stages of the disease. Off the back of successful large-scale trials of the app at Stanford Medical School, Smith is poised to commercialise the solution to help people around the world.
"Erin Smith's insight, innovative drive and application of new technologies has the potential to move early detection of Parkinson's out of the realm of select specialists and into the hands of many," says EPO President António Campinos, announcing the Young Inventors prize 2022 finalists. "Her invention paves the way to earlier treatment, providing relief and hope for patients and their loved ones."
Smith is one of three finalists of the new Young Inventors prize, which the EPO established to encourage the next generation of inventors. The prize recognises young innovators aged 30 or under who have developed solutions to tackle global problems and help reach the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. The winners of the Young Inventors prize 2022 will be announced at the European Inventor Award virtual ceremony, which will be held on 21 June.
Telling facial expressions
Smith grew up in Kansas and fell in love with science at an early age as she and her mother turned their kitchen into a makeshift laboratory. She started her first real lab work at the University of Kansas Medical Center at age 10 and began competing in science fairs. One of her many areas of interest was the human brain: She loved the detective show "Lie to Me" - about a scientist who is an expert at reading people's expressions - and she read deeply into the research it was based on.
In 2016, Smith was watching a video from the Michael J. Fox Foundation and realised that when Fox smiled, it appeared emotionally distant, even if the emotion behind the smile was authentic. Reading into medical literature, she found that the parts of the brain experiencing the earliest changes in Parkinson's disease are the same parts involved in forming facial expressions - or lack thereof, known as ‘mask face'.
"I became really curious about this idea of whether I could use facial expressions to monitor changes in the brain, such as Parkinson's disease," said Smith.
Observing these facial expression ‘markers' was already a hallmark of professionals working with neurological conditions such as Parkinson's, but the changes of expressions had never been objectively quantified. However, Smith saw that artificial intelligence (AI) such as computer vision - which enables computers to derive information from images - could propel diagnosis beyond this barrier.
With the help of Parkinson's support groups, Erin Smith designed a study to capture video footage of people with and without Parkinson's. After locking herself in her basement to learn to code with the help of books and online courses, the young scientist processed the footage using facial recognition software and used this to train a computer vision algorithm to see how a person without Parkinson's makes certain expressions. After doing the same for people with Parkinson's, she demonstrated a measurable difference between the two groups, for the first time.
Parkinson's is usually diagnosed after the loss of motor function, which can occur up to a decade after changes in facial expressions start to manifest. Smith's innovation paves the way for widespread and accurate detection of Parkinson's symptoms years before traditional diagnosis and opens up the possibility of early intervention to delay disease progression.
large-scale clinical trial at Stanford Medical School supported by the Michael
J Fox Foundation enabled Smith to create an app to automate the process for
remote users and expand the dataset to include more gender and racial
diversity. Smith then founded a company, FacePrint, in 2019 and took on
contractors to further develop the computer vision algorithms and web app.
Today, her invention can predict Parkinson's disease with around 95% accuracy
and other misidentified neural disorders with an accuracy of 93%.
"One of my largest hopes for this tool is that it would help improve the care of Parkinson's patients and also be used in drug development to develop disease-modifying therapeutics - in addition to this idea of early detection and intervention." says Erin Smith. "I hope FacePrint can help build this future and lead to a paradigm shift in the way that we view and treat degenerative nerve diseases."
More than 10 million people worldwide currently live with Parkinson's disease, with cases expected to increase significantly as the ageing population grows. The market for treating Parkinson's was worth EUR 3.44 billion in 2016 and is expected to grow to EUR 4.9 billion in 2022.
Notes to the editor
About the inventor
Erin Smith, 22, was born in Chicago, USA. In 2016, she came up with an early detection tool for Parkinson's disease and other misidentified neurological disorders. In 2018, she was awarded a USD $100 000 fellowship from the Thiel Foundation, enabling her to focus on FacePrint, which she founded as a start-up in 2019. In the same year, she started studying artificial intelligence and neuroscience at Stanford University, and is currently on a gap year, working at the University of California's Global Brain Health Institute. Her company has been recognised as the WIRED Health Startup of the Year in 2019 and she was named in the Forbes 30 under 30 list for healthcare in 2019.
About the Young Inventors prize
The European Patent Office established the Young Inventors prize in 2021 to inspire the next generation of inventors. Aimed at innovators aged 30 or below from all around the world, it recognises initiatives that use technology to contribute toward the UN's Sustainable Development Goals. The winner will receive EUR 20 000, the second and third placed finalists will receive EUR 10 000 and EUR 5 000, respectively. An independent jury comprising former finalists of the European Inventor Award selects the finalists and winner. The EPO will confer the inaugural prize at the European Inventor Award virtual ceremony on 21 June. Unlike the traditional Award categories, the Young Inventors prize finalists do not need a granted European patent to be considered for the prize. Read more on the Young Inventors prize eligibility and selection criteria.
About the EPO
With 6 400 staff, the European Patent Office (EPO) is one of the largest public service institutions in Europe. Headquartered in Munich with offices in Berlin, Brussels, The Hague and Vienna, the EPO was founded with the aim of strengthening co-operation on patents in Europe. Through the EPO's centralised patent granting procedure, inventors are able to obtain high-quality patent protection in up to 44 countries, covering a market of some 700 million people. The EPO is also the world's leading authority in patent information and patent searching.
Media contacts European Patent Office
Principal Director Communication, Spokesperson
Tel. +49 89 2399 1833