Parkinson’s research: Achieving quality of life

Reprinted from the Media Planet Supplement in the National Post, March 22, 2012.

Parkinson’s disease affects over 100,000 Canadians. They all want a cure. But, in the meantime, they want to live the best lives possible with their disease. Research is likely the quickest way to get there.

Improving mobility

With symptoms such as tremor, slow movement, muscle rigidity and walking difficulties, people with Parkinson’s have impairments in coordinating posture, motion and navigation.

At the University of Western Ontario, Dr. Mandar Jog, director of the Movement Disorders Program at London Health Sciences Centre and his team, in collaboration with Dr. Michael Katchabaw, an associate professor in the Department of Computer Science, are building virtual reality scenarios to study how people with Parkinson’s navigate spaces such as an apartment interior and a grocery store aisle.

While wearing virtual reality (VR) goggles, the subjects will perform tasks like watering plants or picking up grocery items, as the basis for a VR-based rehabilitation program that correlates directly to activities of daily living.

“Cleaning the house and shopping are activities you can’t train for with standard rehabilitation techniques,” says Jog. “We want to create a rehab program that people can implement on their own, using the software we provide.”

The original pilot project was funded by Parkinson Society Southwestern Ontario through Parkinson Society Canada’s national research program.

In a longer-term project, Jog is using a technology-enhanced suit to understand the dynamics of human motion. The suit is a multi-sensor device that will relay critical information about how people with Parkinson’s move their arms, legs, heads and bodies to coordinate action as they move throughout their own homes.

“If the mobility suit can give us, say, three sensors that are the most predictive of mobility dysfunction in Parkinson’s,” says Jog, “we could possibly have a portable, easy-to-use, in-home mobility assessment system, in a few years’ time.” Together with the VR-based rehabilitation program, it makes a neat package.

Funding for the pilot “suit” project was provided by Parkinson Society Canada. The project continues to be funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

Managing non-motor symptoms

Parkinson’s is considered primarily as a movement disorder. However, some people tell their neurologists that the non-motor symptoms create the greatest disruption of quality of life. Others are not even aware that loss of smell, constipation, urinary problems, insomnia and depression are linked to Parkinson’s, so they don’t mention it.

Dr. Ron Postuma, a neurologist at the McGill University Health Centre, hopes to change that. He has developed a guide with a questionnaire to help people identify the non-motor symptoms of Parkinson’s and to discuss treatment options with their doctors. “The idea is to put the information into the hands of patients so they can seek medical help and to give them clues about what they may be able to do about these symptoms, on their own.”

The booklet resulted from a psychosocial research partnership between Parkinson Society Canada and the CIHR’s Institute of Neurosciences, Mental Health and Addiction. Postuma says it’s a perfect example of how clinical care can be improved by research.

Investing in research

“Innovative research has given us these three practical applications that will help people with Parkinson’s improve their quality of life. They are concrete examples of the need for ongoing investment in research.” says Joyce Gordon, President & CEO, Parkinson Society Canada.

To learn more about Parkinson’s research in Canada and to download a copy of A Guide to the Non-Motor Symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease, visit