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Virtual Reality brings real life Parkinson's awareness

Overview

Published: 06/02/2016

by Arielle Duke

You can read more about this research, along with profiles of other projects funded by Parkinson Canada, at www.parkinson.ca.

 Canadian neuroscientist Kaylena Ehgoetz Martens has more than an academic interest in uncovering the reasons why almost half of everyone in the advanced stages of Parkinson's disease experiences terrifying moments of being unable to move.

For three years, Ehgoetz Martens worked at an exercise/rehabilitation program with a woman with Parkinson's disease who experienced severe freezing of her gait. Three times a week, she helped the woman master a series of sensory-based and coordination exercises at the Movement Disorders Research and Rehabilitation Centre at Wilfrid Laurier University. At the end of their work together, the woman went from being largely wheelchair-bound to walking short distances. More importantly, her less frequent falls and increased independence improved her outlook on life.

“It totally changed her mood,” Ehgoetz Martens says. “Whenever she was able to walk, her mouth would be open, smiling from ear-to-ear. It was really important to me that we were able to change how independent and worthwhile she felt for those last few years.”

The woman has since died, but she inspired the neuroscientist's determination to pursue a research career focused on freezing of gait. Ehgoetz Martens pursued a PhD that demonstrated the link between anxiety and freezing.

Using virtual reality tools, she studied the gait of people with Parkinson's who walked across a plank lying on the floor. When participants wore a headset that created a virtual environment, the program would suddenly “drop” the floor from under the plank, so the participants appeared to be walking nine metres above a deep pit.

The study demonstrated that anxiety provokes movement breakdown, slower walking, and freezing in Parkinson's disease.

Funded by Parkinson Canada's National Research Program, Ehgoetz Martens will now conduct similar research involving patients who participate in virtual reality scenarios while they are in a functional magnetic resonance imaging machine. As they manipulate foot pedals to simulate walking, the fMRI will scan their brains to chart the brain structures involved in their anxiety and in freezing.

It is hoped that the research will result in a new model to determine what causes freezing of gait and new ways to treat and reduce the anxiety that triggers it because part of improving quality of life and even disease severity, comes from treating these non-motor symptoms.

You can read more about this research, along with profiles of other projects funded by Parkinson Canada, at www.parkinson.ca.

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