Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Exciting Research into Parkinson's Disease

Local researchers are stepping up their studies into Parkinson’s disease in hopes of improving the safety and quality of life for those afflicted with the incurable illness.
“We’re looking at balance and fall prevention in people at risk, particularly those affected by Parkinson’s disease (PD),” says Dr. Lesley Brown, kinesiology professor and associate vice-president research at the University of Lethbridge.
Brown says her team has been studying how listening to music while walking can benefit people with PD and they are expecting to expand their work to include participants from across the province this fall.

Photo of Dr. Lesley Brown
courtesy of University of Lethbridge

“One of the trademarks of PD can be a slow, shuffling walk, which increases the risk for falling and we hope to be able to reduce some of the dangers associated with that.”

She says her team is undertaking the new study as a follow-up to a five-year project that concluded in 2011. That study was made possible by a five-year research grant from the Canadian Institute for Health Research and involved around 40 participants.

“In the previous study, we had half the participants walk to the beat of music in the genre they enjoyed and where the cadence matched their walking gait,” she explains. They walked for 40 minutes, three times a week for 13 weeks. The researchers monitored their ongoing progress and compared it to the starting gait measurements of the participants, as well as their counterparts in the study that didn’t do the music therapy. They found definite improvements in the step patterns of the participants undergoing music therapy.

“The bottom line was the participants found the music therapy enjoyable and said they felt it a compelling reason to get outside and walk,” says Brown. “And we know there are many benefits derived from muscular fitness so if they get out walking it will provide some protection against a worsening of the symptoms.”

She says the new study will be more sophisticated and involve a broader scope of participants from around the province. Researchers at the University of Calgary and the University of Alberta will be assisting with the study.

“This time, the music is the reward. Participants will walk outside with an iPod and they will have to step with a steady and regular gait in order to hear the music,” she says. “The music will stop if their walking pattern goes wrong. To get the music back, they’ll have to focus on stepping correctly.”

Parkinson’s disease (PD) is a chronic, degenerative neurological disease which affects approximately 100,000 Canadians. PD develops with the loss of nerve cells in the brain that produce a chemical called dopamine. The symptoms of PD can vary person to person and have an impact on many aspects of patients’ lives. As dopamine levels fall, symptoms such as uncontrollable shaking, stiffness or muscle tensing, and slowness and loss of spontaneous movement can progress.

“We know that vigorous exercise can slow down the progression of the disease and possibly even reverse some of its effects,” says Jon Doan, a U of L kinesiology professor who is involved in Brown’s walking study, along with Natalie DeBruin, a post-doctoral fellow in the Department of Kinesiology.

Doan is also researching the benefits ice skating may have for PD patients and will be presenting his findings at the World Parkinson’s Congress in Montreal in October. 

“Right now we want to see if ice skating is a reasonable activity for neuro research,” he says. His study currently involves 17 patients in Lethbridge, Red Deer, Edmonton, Medicine Hat, Vancouver and Vernon. He wants to expand the research into Saskatchewan this winter.

“Ice skating is a very novel Canadian therapy for PD patients with mild to moderate symptoms,” he says. “The results so far are very positive. They are skating faster, improving their posture and doing some stick handling which helps coordination.”

Doan says some PD patients withdraw socially upon diagnosis or as symptoms worsen and getting out to exercise can have a positive effect on them physically and mentally.“Because of the increasing awareness of PD and better screening, many more people are being diagnosed at a younger age,” he says. “For them, the exercise studies could have a huge impact, not only in slowing or reversing the disease, but helping them socially as well.”

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