Person of the Week: High school senior developed app to detect Parkinson's Disease

Erin Smith's FacePrint app measures how muscles in the face move

E.J. Becker
February 02, 2018 - 7:24 am

"The thing I'm most famous for in my family is I make this creamy white chicken chili," says Erin Smith,  senior at Shawnee Mission West High School.

She's also a biotech inventor with a remarkable innovation that is changing lives.

"I created FacePrint, which is an early and accurate diagostic tool for Parkinson's Disease, using differences I discovered in spontaneous and posed facial expressions," Erin said.




JoAnn Huber, Erin's mother, says her daughter is just a normal teenager.  

"She's a girl and she's giggly and she likes to play with makeup and earrings and all the things that girls like to do," JoAnn said.


E.J. and Ellen met with Erin and some of the people around her. They found one of the most impressive young people they have ever met. Erin attempted to help E.J. and Ellen understand her research.

"Essentially spontaneous and posed facial expressions are any type of facial movements we associate with certain emotions or expressions, such as a smile," Erin says. "It's the individual facial muscle movements that make up these expressions."

The inspriration for the whole thing came from perhaps the world's most famous parkinsons patient.

"About two years ago I was watching a video by the Michael J. Fox Foundation," Erin said. "I noticed whenever Michael J. Fox or another Parkinson's patient would laugh or smile it came off as emotionally distant."

Erin talked with caretakers and clinicians about her discovery.

"They reported similar observations in their loved ones years before diagnosis, but it had always been just that, a subjective observation," Erin said.

Erin went looking for a way to make those subjective observations objective and proveable, which could allow Parkinson's to be diagnosed earlier.

The app works two ways. First, it measures a patient's spontaneous reactions to a series of emotional videos.

The way Erin explains it, the app works two ways.  It measures your spontaneupous reactions to a series of emotional videos. The second type of test is the posed facial expression test.

"For example they're shown a smiley face, a frowny face and then a neutral face," Erin said. "As they're snown these emojis they're supposed to deliberately replicate whatever facial expression is shown."

Some of the parts of the brain that experience the earliest changes in Parkinson's patients are the same parts that affect facial expression. Erin had discovered a tool to diagnose the disease early.

"Currently it has an accuracy of 88 percent and I definitely think that I can improve it from here," Erin said.

Erin plans to launch her next large study with the national Parkinson's Foundation to determin whether the same biomarkers are present in Parkinson's patients and essential tremor patients.

One of the reasons Erin was successful was because she realized family members noticed changes in their loved ones that were imperceptible to medical professionals who didn't know them as well. 

Erin has received a lot of touching feedback from people who have benefitted from her app.

"I've gotten a lot of hand-written letters from patients and from patients' families, so I always keep those," Erin said.Shawnee Mission West teacher Brenda Bott has spent 40 years in the classroom and she said she has only seen one student like Erin, though she did have good things to say for Erin's sister.

"My older sister, when she was in high school, did a lot of Parkinson's research, which is where I first became familiar and fascinated with the idea," Erin said.

That research has touched a lot of people. Erin received a hand-written letter from a Stanford professor who had read her application there. The professor was very impressed with the Erin's app and how it helped a relative with Parkinson's.

She's been accepted to the prestigious university in Palo Alto, California. She is still waiting to hear from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and has been named a finalist to become a Jefferson Scholar at the University of Virginia.

Erin's mom says her daughter is not just a remarkable young scientist. She is a someone who truly cares about others.

"She's the one that will wrote notes and leave on the pillow for people and is concerned making people know that they're important and loved," JoAnn said.

The FacePrint app came about because Erin has a personal philosophy that drives her research. 

"I'd say my overarching goal would be to ease human suffering and promote connections and meaningful relationships," Erin said.

You can hear Erin's story as broadcast on Kansas City's Morning News here.


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