Today’s blog picks up where yesterday’s left off.

Remember, perturbations are external influences which cause a moving object, such as a person, to deviate from its normal path. Walking, for example, is actually a fairly complex motor task. It involves standing and balancing yourself, leaning yourself off-balance, moving a leg and foot under your new center of gravity, and then regaining your balance. Try it and see for yourself.

Walking is a motor skill generally learned in the first year or two of life. As long as the motor control and balance centers of the brain operate normally, you are able to walk efficiently. If you think about walking, and why that might be difficult for a person with Parkinson’s disease, think about it this way. Walking is generally straightforward process for well-bodied persons, even with the odd slippery floor, or sudden change of course to avoid something (those would be perturbations, by the way). For a person with Parkinson’s disease, though, the walking itself begins to require more and more concentration, and any distraction or non-walking-related thought can result in motor errors which can easily accumulate, overwhelm balance, and result in a fall.

Getting back to the research on physical activity and motor control in people with Parkinson’s Disease… I kept encountering the term perturbation in the literature. A variety of researchers study the impact of perturbations on things like a person’s balance. Sports medicine researchers, for example, might measure a person’s ability to maintain balance on a wobble-board, for example, or a roller table. This research is relevant to both performance training and rehabilitation from body or limb injuries which impact standing and walking.

Neuroscientists, study whether people with neuro-degenerative diseases like Parkinson’s who have already lost some balance or motor control can regain some of that function through perturbation-based treatments. As an example, they might investigate whether balance and walking speed can be improved by practicing walking in a setup which has mild perturbations built into it. The quick scan that I have done so far indicates that some types of perturbation treatments can improve motor function to a degree in people with Parkinson’s disease. The effect is diminished, though, if the person not able to concentrate fully on that specific activity. Think of the person walking across a room to get something. The phone on the other side of the room rings. Suddenly, their focus on walking is now split – “Do I stop, turn around, and go back to get the phone?” “Will I be able to get there before is stops ringing?” That does not even consider the related thoughts about who it might be on the phone, what they want, or, “Where did I leave the phone?”

Parkinson’s disease results from the deterioration of specific neural pathways in the brain which carry information that governs motor control – how you move your body. Scientists continue to learn about what causes these sorts of degenerative diseases, but the answers are not all in. Treatment can slow down the onset of symptoms, but cannot yet cure this.

As we have done from the beginning of our wellness project, we encourage you to support research into Parkinson’s disease by making a donation to fund Parkinson’s research.  Click here or visit our “How to Donate” page to see how you can donate to the Royal University Hospital Foundation fund.