Research at Mass General is interwoven throughout more than 30 departments, centers and units, and is conducted with the support and guidance of the Mass General Research Institute. The Research Roundup is a monthly series highlighting studies, news and events.

Using Smartphones to Measure Parkinson’s Disease Symptoms

Mobile technology has impacted nearly every aspect of our lives, including how we manage our health. A recently launched substudy from researchers at Mass General will look into utilizing patient-owned smartphones to measure symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. Results will help researchers better understand the feasibility and accuracy of using mobile technology as a data collection tool in
clinical trials.

Participants in this substudy will use an app to answer symptom surveys and complete activity tests that utilize the sensors in the phone to assess performance in movements that are affected by Parkinson’s. Results from participants’ weekly at-home self-assessments will be compared to assessments taken in-clinic during regular study visits to determine whether results are consistent and if the smartphone results provide any additional insights.

This substudy is part of a larger NIH-funded Parkinson’s disease clinical trial. Researchers are optimistic that mobile technology will transform clinical trials and provide an opportunity to track participant progress more frequently than is possible with in-clinic evaluations.

Michael Schwarzschild, MD, PhD, of the Mass General Department of Neurology, is the study’s lead investigator.

Acupuncture Measurably Improves Outcomes of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

A new study shows that acupuncture treatments not only reduce patient-reported experiences of pain in carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS), but this ancient therapy also makes a measurable difference in how the brain processes nerve signals that are compromised by the painful repetitive motion disorder.

CTS is one of the few chronic pain disorders associated with objective measurable changes. Because CTS is a result of compression of the median nerve in the arm, impulses between the wrist and the forearm – such as motor function and sensation – are slowed down.Additionally, studies have shown that the brain – particularly the part that receives touch-related signals – is remapped in CTS. Specifically, brain cells that usually respond to touch signals from individual fingers start to respond to signals from multiple fingers.

Study participants received either electro-acupuncture at the affected hand, at the ankle opposite the affected hand or sham electro-acupuncture with placebo needles near the affected hand. Results were measured before and after eight weeks of therapy sessions (16 sessions total) using a questionnaire and MRI scans.

Researchers found that the 80 participants across all three groups reported improvements in their pain and numbness after the treatments. However, only participants who received real acupuncture – either at the affected hand or at the ankle – saw improved nerve impulses in the wrist. Those that received real acupuncture at the affected hand also experienced brain remapping linked to long-term improvement in CTS symptoms. No physiologic improvements resulted from sham acupuncture.

Researchers will now plan further research to better understand how acupuncture works to relieve pain in an effort to help improve non-pharmacological care options for chronic pain patients.

Vitaly Napadow, PhD, director of the Nass General Center for Integrative Pain Neuroimaging at the Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging, is senior author of this study. 

Read more articles from the 03/17/17 Hotline issue.