The beat goes on: Study finds trekking to a tempo could help Parkinson's patients

Never downplay the power of a decent beat — as new research from the University of Pittsburgh shows, traipsing to a reliable tempo could prove to be significantly helpful to patients suffering from Parkinson’s disease.

Ervin Sejdic, assistant professor of engineering in Pitt’s Swanson School of Engineering, joined forces with collaborators from abroad to test auditory, tactile and visual cues that can arise in Parkinson’s patients during rehabilitation. Sejdic and company measured the effects of metronomic stimuli on fifteen healthy adults participants, aged 18 to 30. Study subjects were involved in two sessions of walking — 15 minutes each — in which they were directed to walk in step with different auditory cues.

The initial interval involved the study constituents walking at their own pace. As the experiment progressed, walkers were then asked to step in time with a metronomic beat, by way of visuals, sound, or touch. Lastly, the participants were encouraged to incorporate all three cues while walking at their preferred pace.

“We found that the auditory cue had the greatest influence on human gait, while the visual cues had no significant effect whatsoever,” Sejdic said. “This finding could be particularly helpful for patients with Parkinson’s Disease, for example, as auditory cues work very well in their rehabilitation.”

When dealing with an illness such as Parkinson’s disease, the perpetual challenge for researchers is whether or not they will be able to identify and understand the changes that occur parallel to deterioration. The research team believes that visual cues could be employed as an alternative modality in rehabilitation and treatment; thus, more exploration can be done along this node.

“Oftentimes, a patient with Parkinson’s Disease comes in for an exam, completes a gait assessment in the laboratory, and everything is great,” said Sejdic. “But then, the person leaves and falls down. Why? Because a laboratory is a strictly controlled environment. It’s flat, has few obstacles, and there aren’t any cues (like sound) around us. When we’re walking around our neighborhoods, however, there are sidewalks, as well as streetlights and people honking car horns: you have to process all of this information together. We are trying to create that real-life space in the laboratory.”

Next up, the Pittsburg research crew is eager to study the gait with which Parkinson’s inflicted patients walk to see if variances in said step-girth prove more beneficial in treatment.

“Can we see the same trends that we observed in healthy people?” Sejdic said. “And, if we observe the same trends, then that would have direct connotations to rehabilitation processes.” 

Further study of the metronomic effects on runners and walkers is another avenue of interest for the team.

The study was published in the August issue of PLOS One. Funding was provided in part by the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Toronto, and Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital.