In 2015, Lucy Yung was a young industrial designer working on assistive devices for stroke victims, people with multiple sclerosis, and people with other conditions that make it difficult for them to control fine motor skills. Her projects included a pen that used high-frequency vibrations to help Parkinson’s patients write more clearly.
Then he was diagnosed with a brain tumor. “I really learned what it felt like to be a patient and that any kind of support or help can dramatically change the lives of people with chronic illnesses,” she says. Once she recovered and returned to work in 2018, she resumed her research into Parkinson’s, with the goal of improving the lives of those who suffer from the disease.
Parkinson’s arises from a communication problem: Damage to neurons in the brain’s substantia nigra leads to reduced levels of dopamine and unusual electrical rhythms, making it difficult for signals to move between neurons. The instructions that the brain attempts to send to the body struggle to be transmitted, resulting in the characteristic tremors, stiffness, and freezing of gait seen in patients.
But through his previous work with the pen, Yung had identified a possible solution. In the 19th century, French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot noted that Parkinson’s symptoms seemed to improve markedly after patients had taken long journeys by carriage or train, and subsequent research has revealed that rhythmic auditory, visual, or physical stimulation can Help Parkinson’s patients walk. more fluidity through what are known as “cues.”
In 2019, Yung founded Puddle Neurotech, a Cambridge-based startup named after the French neurologist, which has developed a wearable device that promises to reduce the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. Charco’s device, the CUE1, is a small plastic disk with an electric motor inside. It is placed on the user’s breastbone, where it vibrates at high frequency in a pattern that has been shown to reduce Parkinson’s symptoms through signaling.
Unlike deep brain stimulation implants, which have also been used To treat Parkinson’s symptoms, CUE1 is non-invasive (attached to the skin using a medical adhesive) and inexpensive. The £295 ($371) device is being used by more than 2,000 people in the UK, with a waiting list of almost 20,000 in 120 countries. Charco has raised more than $10 million in funding and grants and now employs 38 people in the United Kingdom, South Korea and the United States, including Parkinson’s specialists, nurses, engineers and data analysts. The goal is to get the device approved by regulators so doctors can prescribe it through the National Health Service or Medicaid.
An app allows users to adapt the vibration pattern to what works best for them. Yung hopes to develop a feedback system so that the device automatically adjusts based on how well someone moves, increasing or decreasing the signal pattern as needed. “What we’re seeing is that people tend to use the device all day,” he says. “Some people even use it when they sleep and it helps them sleep too.”
This article appears in the March/April 2024 issue of UK WIRED magazine.