Photography by Alex Welsh

One Inventor’s Race to Manage His Parkinson’s Disease With an App

Ray Finucane was dubbed an engineering ‘wizard.’ Managing his own brain is his toughest challenge yet.

Peter Andrey Smith
Published in
14 min readMay 22, 2019

RRay Finucane, a retired mechanical engineer, has flown supersonic jets in Florida, built a 33-acre island of ice in the Arctic Ocean, and worked on hydrogen gas guns that could catapult satellites into orbit. His colleagues used to call him “the wizard.” Now, at 75 years old, Finucane has turned his attention inward, on a complex system that’s proven even more bewildering: the flow of dopamine within his own brain.

Finucane has Parkinson’s disease, a condition that occurs when cells in the substantia nigra, a region in the midbrain, deteriorate and die. These cells produce dopamine, a chemical messenger that is essential for normal muscle movement. To replenish dopamine levels, doctors prescribe levodopa, a drug that remains the gold standard for treatment despite the fact that it is now more than a half -century old. But because there’s no practical way to monitor the concentration of dopamine in the body, it’s difficult to perfectly tailor the dosing of levodopa to an individual patient’s needs. Too much levodopa can mean overfilling the brain’s tank with dopamine; too little can mean running out of steam. While doctors do their best, Parkinson’s is a fluctuating condition — symptoms come and go — and clinicians are limited in their insight into how patients respond to medication. So in 2015, Finucane decided to treat his disease like an engineering problem, and build a tool that would better match his medication with the onset of symptoms.

“What I have done is to come up with a way to predict the cumulative effect of a specified prescription, and a scheme to derive a pill schedule to meet the desired end point goal,” Finucane wrote me in an email. “It involves something akin to unwinding a blockchain, if that makes sense to you.”

I wasn’t sure that it did, so in late April I visited Finucane and his partner, Wendy Bomberg, in Berkeley, California. He seemed to be in high spirits as we walked back…