Tuesday, October 3, 2023

W&M and VCU Team Up to Fight Parkinson’s Disease

The UltiGesture is a quarter-sized piece of hardware co-developed by Zhou’s lab that carries an accelerometer and gyroscope that collect data, which is transmitted to a smartphone via Bluetooth. (Courtesy of W&M/Adrienne Berard)

WILLIAMSBURG — An interdisciplinary team of scientists from the College of William & Mary (W&M) and Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) are working on a technology designed to help people diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease navigate movement related symptoms.

More than 10 million people worldwide suffer from the progressive nervous system disorder. There is no known cure for Parkinson’s Disease, but the Computer Science Department at W&M combined with the VCU School of Nursing and the School of Medicine are hoping to curb some of the more dangerous symptoms.

The symptom they are most concerned with is one called Freezing of Gait (FoG), which is the temporary inability to move while walking. FoG can cause patients to fall while moving, which is dangerous for anyone, particularly for the elderly.

To help combat FoG, W&M Professor Gang Zhou and his team are working on wearable hardware that will monitor a person’s gait and give a small vibration designed to prompt the person’s foot or ankle when they are having trouble walking.

“Freezing of Gait can be very isolating socially. It’s very burdensome, or at least taxing, on family members that have to help their loved ones. It affects their psyche through the fear of falling,” VCU School of Nursing Associate Professor and Senior Nurse Researcher Ingrid Pretzer-Aboff said in a W&M press release. “There are very few choices out there to help patients like this. We’re hoping that using vibration in this new way will show better results and give people some hope, a little more autonomy, freedom and a better quality of life.”

The technology is still in the early testing stages. Over the last several months, Zhou’s research team has been testing the hardware as an ankle bracelet. One of the team members who does not have a diagnosis of Parkinson’s wears it while walking. This has allowed the research team to gather baseline data.

“The current treatments available for Parkinson’s disease reduce symptoms, but they don’t remove the real-time danger of falling from Freezing of Gait,” Zhou explained. “This system will be able to differentiate between intentional stopping and the involuntary stopping from Freezing of Gait, and then it will be able to provide instant vibration treatment.” 

Going forward, Zhou and his team will combine their work with the VibeForward Device developed by Resonate Forward, LLC, which makes hardware designed to deliver the aforementioned vibrations.

“It’s really about providing Parkinson’s patients a new level of freedom to navigate the world safely,” Zhou said. “With our environment-dependent classification framework, they will be free to navigate potentially triggering stimuli with far less risk of injury. We are marking the environment for them, adjusting our algorithm to reconfigure and deliver the right dose of the vibration based on that environment. Giving patients that element of freedom, that’s a motivating factor here.”

For more information on this research and other Parkinson’s related research visit the VCU Parkinson’s and Movement Disorders Center website.

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