As part of April’s Parkinson’s Awareness Month, Health Talk is taking a closer look at some current University of Minnesota research projects that will help better understand the disease and what new research can do for future treatment and intervention.
Within the U of M’s Movement Disorders Laboratory, Colum MacKinnon, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Medical School’s Department of Neurology is examining “freezing of gait” – an issue seen in roughly half of all patients with Parkinson’s disease. MacKinnon and fellow researchers are hopeful new research could advance understanding of the issue.
The aforementioned “freezing of gait” is characterized by the episodic or spontaneous inability to start or maintain forward progress during walking.
The issue can impede a person’s mobility and sense of independence. Many people with Parkinson’s describe freezing of gait as feeling like their feet are literally glued to the floor. Worse, the issue can arise at any time, so everyday activities like crossing the street or walking around the house can become extremely challenging.
“For people with frequent and severe freezing episodes, it can become the most debilitating aspect of the disease,” said MacKinnon. “Imagine trying to walk across the street on a green light and getting “frozen” in the middle of the intersection without the ability to move forward. It’s very frustrating and potentially dangerous for them.”
Dopamine replacement therapy can reduce the frequency and severity of freezing episodes but over time the medications lose their effectiveness. For some, medication never helps at all. Interestingly, despite the limitations with current medications, freezing episodes can be broken by a visual cue or signal such as a flashing light.
MacKinnon and his team are currently working to better understand why some cues work and how to present cues in a way that allow patients to overcome or even avoid freezing episodes.
“Our preliminary data shows that specific cueing protocols can unlock or “thaw” freezing episodes and release a near-normal pattern of movement, even in severely affected people with Parkinson’s disease.”
What does this mean neurologically?
“This means that, somewhere deep in the brain of people with Parkinson’s disease, there are near-normal movement patterns that can be accessed and released. For reasons that are not currently understood, people with Parkinson’s disease lose the capacity to access these patterns when they try to voluntarily move without cues, but when cues are provided, they can move remarkably better.”
MacKinnon hopes that by better understanding how to access these parts of the brain new strategies and treatments can be designed to more reliably release the functional movements and avoid freezing episodes.