What if doctors could diagnose Parkinson’s disease by studying movements in a person’s face that could be recorded from home on a webcam?
A Shawnee Mission West High School student’s research into how facial recognition software could help doctors better diagnose Parkinson’s disease earned her first place in an international competition for high school students.
Erin Smith, 17, won the International BioGENEius Challenge held earlier this week in San Diego and earned $7,500 for her research. Hosted by the Biotechnology Institute, the competition challenges high school students from across the world to find solutions to health care, sustainability and environmental needs through biotechnology.
Earlier this year, Smith was chosen along with 15 other high school students from across the world to share her research during the International BioGENEius Challenge.
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By recording the facial expressions of subjects using software available through a website Smith coded, the rising senior discovered early indicators of the disease and then built an algorithm that could be used as a diagnostic tool for Parkinson’s, a neurological disease that affects movement and coordination.
“I discovered these differences by having subjects watch Super Bowl commercials and replicate emojis, and then I used facial recognition software to break down their movements for 33 different facial muscle contractions,” Smith said in a Biotechnology Innovation Organization interview after her win. “Then I discovered the differences and then built a series of machine learning algorithms to accurately diagnose.”
The markers of the disease that Smith discovered could help doctors diagnose Parkinson’s disease five to 10 years sooner, as current indicators are considered subjective by experts, Smith said.
Smith hopes the low cost of collecting the data she used to inform her algorithm could also help doctors trying to understand the disease.
Smith said the software she worked with is compatible with social media platforms such as Snapchat and Facebook. She’s excited about the prospect that the video and pictures people take on social media could play a role in diagnosing diseases sooner.
“I was really fascinated with the idea of being able to take a selfie and then being able to tell whether or not you have Parkinson’s disease or ultimately other diseases, as well,” Smith said.
At Shawnee Mission West High School, Smith studies biotechnology through one of the district’s “signature” programs, opportunities given to high school students who are interested in specializing in specific areas. Her work has already been recognized by the Michael J. Fox Foundation.
This summer, she will continue her research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.