'Walking' help for Parkinson's patients

'Walking' help for Parkinson's patients

A team at the University of Sydney says its hopes to use a simulated virtual reality environment to help patients suffering from the phenomenon known as “freezing of gait” ie, FOG which affects over half of all Parkinson’s patients, and is triggered by having to walk through narrow doorways.

“Patients experiencing FOG suddenly feel like their feet have been glued to floor as they try to walk, often causing them to fall,” Dr Simon Lewis, who led the team, said.
Using a new magnetic resonance scanner, the team devised a realistic virtual reality (VR) environment with a series of corridors and doorways, which patients navigate using foot pedals.

“Our preliminary results show that patients with FOG have a delay in their stepping pattern when passing though doorways in the VR. We didn’t see this in patients without FOG or in healthy control subjects,” Dr Lewis said.

He added: “Furthermore, we have been able to correlate the amount of freezing experienced in VR with that observed during physical assessment in the clinic. Finally, as VR allows patients to walk whilst lying down we have even been able to use our novel brain scanning technique to see what is going on in the brain during freezing episodes.

He said that the findings have their potential application to therapy as currently FOG does not respond well to available treatments.

Brain illness

According to Dr Lynette Masters, a team member, diseases of the brain and mind, including Parkinson’s disease, dementia, substance abuse and clinical depression, now account for a significant number of all illnesses.

“MRI uses magnetic fields and radio waves to produce high quality two or three-dimensional images of brain structures without the use of ionising radiation (X-rays) or radioactive tracers. “In research, MRI can be used in the development of novel biomarkers and non-invasive imaging technologies that help improve our understanding of disease and, ultimately, lead to better diagnosis and treatment of debilitating illnesses,” he said.

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