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Biomechanics Research May Help Parkinson's Patients - 2002-11-28

The high-tech field of biomechanics emerged in the last two decades to help athletes boost their performance. But scientists at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia are hoping to use their equipment to help those with Parkinson's Disease, a condition that severely restricts movement.

To achieve the best performance they can, athletes may work out with weights, follow special diets, or turn to high-technology. "Instead of looking at shot-put movement that takes less than a second, we can look at that using our high-speed video cameras," says Ray McCoy, a trainer for the U.S. Olympic team in the early nineties. "So we can look at their technique in great detail, so we know exactly how far apart their feet are, what their body position is at different parts of the movement. Then we can evaluate their technique for the elite versus the very-good athletes and so we can help to give feedback for all of them."

Today, as Director of the Human Performance Laboratory at the College of William and Mary, Mr. McCoy uses the same biomechanics technology in the fight against Parkinson's Disease. The brain of a person with Parkinson's malfunctions, and cannot properly make enough of a chemical neurotransmitter called dopamine. Dopamine helps nerve impulses transmit commands to the body's muscles. Mr. McCoy says that's why people with Parkinson's often don't swing their arms when they walk, as other people do. "It's not the arm that's affected, it's the brain, and the control of the arm from the brain down."

So, technicians in the Human Performance Lab videotape Parkinson's patients as they walk on a treadmill. Sensors in their shoes record precisely when their feet make contact with the ground. After transferring the videotape into a computer, a technician marks precisely where the patient's knee and ankle joints are. "Then the computer can calculate joint and knee angle range of motion, look at the toe height above the ground, look at the amount of body lean that the person is leaning forward while walking, so we're quantifying that," says Mr. McCoy.

Mr. McCoy is currently conducting experiments to see if the brain can be tricked into getting the body to move properly. Subjects with Parkinson's are asked to walk to the beat of a metronome. "And we're going to see how that changes their mechanics of walking, whether while listening to an auditory beat they will change their walking patterns," he says. "They may have a higher foot height above the ground so they wouldn't shuffle as much, or maybe they don't lean forward as much, or they have an increased joint range of motion of the ankle, knee or hip."

Mr. McCoy says researchers also hope that concentrating on the beat might stimulate the brain to produce more dopamine. About 150,00 Americans are diagnosed with Parkinson's each year, and one of the goals of this research is to improve their quality of life. "For the most part, we're trying to develop a protocol whereby any Parkinson's subject can then use these interventions and walk in a more safe manner," he says. "If they can walk more safely, they'll tend to walk more, and I think that will increase their well-being."

Although the research at the Human Performance Lab isn't meant to lead to a cure, Ray McCoy says he hopes his work will help Parkinson's sufferers walk their way to better overall health.