Skip to main content
Move the World.
Detect Diabetes

Lead Image © Halfpoint / Adobe Stock

More than 450 million people have diabetes, but nearly half don't even know it — the disease can be asymptomatic for years, leaving people with it feeling like nothing is wrong.

Since diabetes is linked to a host of health issues, not only are these asymptomatic people not doing anything to manage their disease, they're also unaware that they're at higher risk of heart attacks, strokes, and even COVID-19.

Some asymptomatic people at high-risk of diabetes might opt to be screened for it, but that requires regular visits to a doctor's office for blood testing, something that other people may find too inconvenient.

Now, UC San Francisco researchers have developed an algorithm that can detect diabetes using a measurement collected by a smartphone's camera — no blood draw or doctor's visit required.

An AI to Detect Diabetes

At the core of the UCSF research is a technique regularly used by smartwatches and fitness trackers to measure heart rate called "photoplethysmography (PPG)."

This technique involves shining a light onto a person's wrist or fingertip, then recording and analyzing the color changes that take place under their skin with each heartbeat.

The algorithm can detect diabetes with about 80% accuracy.

The UCSF researchers suspected that they could use PPG to spot blood vessel damage that would also allow them to detect diabetes.

They collected nearly 3 million PPG readings from more than 50,000 people with diabetes. (The readings had been taken for a heart disease study.)

Armed with this PPG data, they developed and validated an algorithm that could detect diabetes with about 80% accuracy. When tested on people who didn't have diabetes, it cleared between 92% and 97%.

This is comparable to the accuracy of other tests commonly used to screen for diseases such as breast or cervical cancer, according to the researchers' study, published in the journal Nature Medicine.

The accuracy also increased when the algorithm learned other details about the patient, such as gender and age.

Catching Undiagnosed Diabetes

More research is needed to determine just how healthcare professionals could make use of the algorithm, but eventually, it could be incorporated into an app people could use at home.

"The ability to detect a condition like diabetes that has so many severe health consequences using a painless, smartphone-based test raises so many possibilities," researcher Geoffrey Tison said in a news release.

"The vision would be for a tool like this to assist in identifying people at higher risk of having diabetes," he continued, "ultimately helping to decrease the prevalence of undiagnosed diabetes."

We'd love to hear from you! If you have a comment about this article or if you have a tip for a future Freethink story, please email us at [email protected].

Up Next

CRISPR
Scientists Use CRISPR to Reverse Diabetes in Mice
reverse diabetes
CRISPR
Scientists Use CRISPR to Reverse Diabetes in Mice
Scientists have used CRISPR to correct a diabetes-causing mutation in stem cells and then use those cells to reverse diabetes in mice.

Scientists have used CRISPR to correct a diabetes-causing mutation in stem cells and then use those cells to reverse diabetes in mice.

DIY
Treating Diabetes with a DIY Pancreas
Treating Diabetes with a DIY Pancreas
Watch Now
DIY
Treating Diabetes with a DIY Pancreas
A group of coders created an open source, DIY pancreas to help people with diabetes manage their condition.
Watch Now

Diabetes is a high maintenance and high stakes disease requiring constant monitoring and precise decision-making. What if we could outsource that workload to a machine? That’s what one couple decided to do. They made a homemade pancreas that eases the burden of diabetes care… and then released the design to the public for free.

Dispatches
How Coffee Could Treat Diabetes
How Coffee Could Treat Diabetes
Dispatches
How Coffee Could Treat Diabetes
Someday, diabetics could use caffeine to trigger insulin production, thanks to specially designed kidney cells.

Someday, diabetics could use caffeine to trigger insulin production, thanks to specially designed kidney cells.

How a Smartphone Can Detect a Deadly Disease, without a Lab, for Free
How a Smartphone Can Detect a Deadly Disease, without a Lab, for Free
Watch Now
How a Smartphone Can Detect a Deadly Disease, without a Lab, for Free
This app tests for anemia, and it's nearly as good as the gold-standard lab test.
Watch Now

Anemia affects up to ⅓ of the world’s population, but tests are expensive and require complicated devices. Now, an app is able to screen for anemia without even drawing blood. It’s the brainchild of Rob Mannino, a postdoctoral fellow at the Georgia Institute of Technology who has anemia himself. He wanted to fight the disease, so he teamed up with Wilbur Lam, an associate professor at Emory. Recognizing the number of...

Future of Medicine
This Ultrasound Connects to an iPhone to Help Catch COVID-19
Portable Ultrasound Machine
Future of Medicine
This Ultrasound Connects to an iPhone to Help Catch COVID-19
Ultrasound can be a useful diagnostic tool for COVID-19. A portable ultrasound machine called the Butterfly iQ may make it safer.

Ultrasound can be a useful diagnostic tool for COVID-19. A portable ultrasound machine called the Butterfly iQ may make it safer.

Public Health
A Smart Thermometer Is Helping Fight the Coronavirus
fight the coronavirus
Public Health
A Smart Thermometer Is Helping Fight the Coronavirus
Kinsa Health is helping fight the coronavirus by sharing data collected by its smart thermometers as quickly as possible.

Kinsa Health is helping fight the coronavirus by sharing data collected by its smart thermometers as quickly as possible.

Dispatches
CRISPR Can Diagnose Zika (and Ebola) with Just a Strip of Paper
CRISPR Can Diagnose Zika (and Ebola) with Just a Strip of Paper
Dispatches
CRISPR Can Diagnose Zika (and Ebola) with Just a Strip of Paper
We could be on our way to a fast, reliable, portable test for almost any virus or cancerous mutation.

We could be on our way to a fast, reliable, portable test for almost any virus or cancerous mutation.

Medical Breakthroughs
AI Beats Neurologists at Making Alzheimer's Diagnosis
Alzheimer's Diagnosis
Medical Breakthroughs
AI Beats Neurologists at Making Alzheimer's Diagnosis
Scientists have created an AI capable of making an Alzheimer’s diagnosis that’s more accurate than the one delivered by a group of neurologists.

Scientists have created an AI capable of making an Alzheimer’s diagnosis that’s more accurate than the one delivered by a group of neurologists.

Public Health
Disease Detectives: Tracking Invisible Killers
coronavirus transmission
Public Health
Disease Detectives: Tracking Invisible Killers
Disease detectives on the frontlines of coronavirus track the person-to-person spread.

Disease detectives on the frontlines of coronavirus track the person-to-person spread.