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Brain training being tested on Parkinson's patients

An innovative way to get people living with Parkinson’s working on walking and balance is being tested out at the University of Manitoba.

Those running the clinical trial say changes in how people walk and how their brain operates can put them at significant risk of falling. The researchers are looking to see if falling risk can be reduced by getting people to do two things at once – walk and play a video game.

It's a tough task for Scott Stothers who has been working to play a fishing video game and keeping balance on a treadmill.

"The game kind of goes out the window the first go around, but as you get more knowledgeable about the game you can tie the two together and stop thinking about the walking and balancing," he said.

Stothers was diagnosed with Parkinson’s a few years ago and is participating in the study.

The University of Manitoba researchers running this clinical trial call this dual-task challenge a neuro-fitness program.

"It addresses both gait stability and cognitive impairment," said Tony Szturm, a professor in the college of rehabilitation sciences and the department of physical therapy at the University of Manitoba.

Under the treadmill track is a sensor recording each step.

Szturm said the study is looking to see if this type of complex task has any effect on a Parkinson’s patient's risk of falling and their social interactions.

"If you fall a few times the chances are you are going to limit your ability and then that becomes the vicious cycle,” said Szturm.

In order to see what's going on inside their heads, participants will also get PET scans to see if the brain is reviving old automatic pathways or making new ones in a different part of the brain. That’s where principal investigator Ji Hyun Ko comes in.

"What is unique about Parkinson's disease in terms of gait is that they utilize a lot of the prefrontal cortex to walk," explained Ko who is an associate professor in the U of M’s department of human anatomy and cell science.

The two say if the system proves safe and effective, the idea is to have neuro-fitness programming available at community-based fitness centres so people like Stothers could come and use it on his own.

"Honestly, I thought my balance wasn’t too bad but I get there and I’ve just gone through about an hour of training and I am shaking a bit because just like an athlete, I’m tired," he said.

This research is funded by Weston Brain Institute.

According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, it is estimated the number of Canadians living with Parkinsonism will double between 2011 and 2031. Top Stories

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