Jonathan Rezek first sensed that something was wrong when he froze onstage at a business conference in 2012. Normally, the affable IBM sales executive would have been in his element. He'd always thrived on the adrenalin rush of public speaking, and he could ad lib confidently without notes.
But this time, instead of sharpening under pressure, he panicked.
"I was like a deer caught in the headlights. I wanted to run offstage," he says, sipping a herbal tea and recalling the experience at a Toronto café near IBM's downtown office, where he leads business development at an incubator for tech startups.
For most people, a bout of stage fright wouldn't be too unusual; for Jonathan, the memory still resonates ominously – it was his first glimpse of a now-familiar foe.
Though he wouldn't get his diagnosis until two years later, that uncharacteristic spell of paralysis signalled the beginning stages of Parkinson's disease, a neurodegenerative disorder that accelerates the death of brain cells responsible for producing dopamine.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that carries messages in the brain and rewards behaviour. Its absence leads to mood dysregulation and can cause anhedonia, or joylessness. Dopamine also plays a role in motor function; as it depletes, people with Parkinson's struggle to control their physical movements.
It wasn't until he noticed his arm shaking after workouts that Jonathan went to his doctor. A neurological assessment led to his diagnosis, revealing the source of his anxiety and tremors.
"It was surreal," says Jonathan, about first hearing the news.
Asking AI for help
Approximately 6,600 Canadians receive a diagnosis of Parkinson's every year. The disease has no cure, and nothing stops its progression. The sole treatment addresses the main symptom of Parkinson's, involuntary shaking, not the underlying cause of the neuronal degeneration, which is still unknown.
Since the death of brain cells can't be halted, doctors intervene by supplying the brain with synthetic dopamine to replace what it can no longer adequately produce or effectively process, an approach that has hardly changed since the 1960s.
These dopamine-replacement drugs have significant side effects that, over time, gravely compromise a patient's quality of life.
Parkinson's remains an unsolved condition, but when Jonathan received his diagnosis in 2014, he found himself in a unique position to do something about that.
In the preceding years, he'd been involved in advising IBM's customers about how to solve business problems using Watson, the company's proprietary artificial intelligence (AI) program that specializes in natural language processing, a subset of AI research that focuses on going beyond keyword searches to interpreting sentences.
In 2011, Watson made its public debut on Jeopardy!, besting two of the television game show's champions. It was a breakthrough moment for AI. Watson could comprehend a question and rapidly parse millions of articles to provide a precise and accurate answer, not just a list of possibilities.
Jonathan started to wonder what would happen if Watson's powers were applied to the core questions that had stymied Parkinson's researchers for decades. Could AI find a cure? Or, at least, a more effective treatment?
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