Understanding the Brain’s Way of Walking

Dorelle Hinton, PhD candidate
McGill University

Most of us don’t have to think about what we’re doing when walk—whether it’s a stroll around our neighbourhood or moving from one room to another. But for many people with Parkinson’s disease, walking is a conscious activity that requires intense concentration, because they are afraid they will fall or become rooted to the ground.

At McGill University, gait biomechanist and neuroscience student Dorelle Hinton, a PhD candidate, uses brain imaging to study what’s occurring in the brains of people with Parkinson’s who are having trouble walking. Hinton’s research is made possible with a $20,000 Graduate Student Award over two years with funding from the Fonds de Recherche du Québec – Santé through the Parkinson Canada Research Program.

Hinton works at the Human Brain Control of Locomotion Lab under the supervision of Dr. Caroline Paquette, using Positron Emission Tomography (PET) to scan the brains of people with Parkinson’s who have just spent 30 minutes walking on a treadmill with a separate belt under each leg. The belts are activated at different speeds, causing participants to take sudden steps and quickly change their walking pattern. That walking activity mimics what happens when they have to change levels, alter course or go through doorways—activities that can cause a feeling of being unable to move their feet for people with Parkinson’s who experience “freezing.” 

If the PET scans pinpoint the areas the brain that these sudden steps activate, Hinton hopes to isolate the networks of brain cells that are involved. 

“Our focus for this project is trying to create a roadmap of what the brain is doing, and how it has been affected by this disease in terms of walking, given that walking is such an important part of our daily life,” she says.

Once she has identified a brain network that is either over-activated or under-activated when people with Parkinson’s walk in more complex situations like the lab’s treadmill, that location could provide a target for future therapies, such as Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS). TMS uses a large magnet to either activate or inhibit specific areas of the brain, to help correct the problem Parkinson’s has created.  

“If we could help with a future protocol that would improve walking ability, that would greatly improve quality of life for those who live with this disease,” Hinton says.

As a former competitive swimmer and triathlete, Hinton is intrigued by the complex task of walking—the ability to maintain balance and move in unison without conscious thought.

She’s also intrigued by the ability researchers have to search for answers to problems no one else has solved.