Parkinson’s disease (PD) has become the second most common neurodegenerative disorder in the U.S. One million people in this country live with the disease and 60,000 more are diagnosed with it each year. Parkinson’s is the 14th leading cause of death in the United States. Alzheimer’s disease is the only neurodegenerative disease that leads to more deaths than PD. That is why a new laser device developed by researchers at the Mayo Clinic’s Jacksonville, Florida site is of so much interest to so many.
What causes walking to be difficult for those with Parkinson’s disease?
One of the most frustrating struggles people living with Parkinsons’ eventually face is simply trying to walk. As the disease progresses, people with PD must try to maintain their mobility as their legs become stiffer and their stride becomes shorter. They find themselves unable to control their own muscles.
Parkinson’s causes dopamine, a key chemical in the brain, to become depleted. The loss of dopamine can lead to damage in the basal ganglia area of the brain. This is the area of the brain that is responsible for automatic movements and the tasks we do without thinking throughout the day. These include activities like standing up, walking, or getting out of bed. The damage to this area of the brain results in stiff muscles, involuntary movements, and problems with balance.
Using a mobile laser device to help Parkinson’s patients walk
Dr. Jay Van Gerpen of the Mayo Clinic found a way to help people walk by looking at what researchers as far back as the 1960s have noticed about Parkinson’s patients. That is, when people with PD followed visual cues such as white lines marked on a dark floor, they could lengthen their stride and walk more normally. The lines seemed to help patients overcome the deficits created by the damage that the disease causes on the basal ganglia of the brain and the resulting loss of muscle control. It is believed this occurs because movements linked to visual cues are processed through the brain differently than those tasks we do automatically.
Recognizing that everyday life doesn’t come with white lines marked on the floor, Dr. Van Gerpen began to explore the idea of using lasers to mimic the lines. He calls his device, “The Mobilaser.” The laser device attaches to a walker or a cane and sends a beam of light for patients to follow. The visual cue, the red laser line, essentially re-routes the signals in the brain. So, instead of trying to use the damaged primary motor cortex of the brain to signal the body to walk, the laser’s red line provides the person with a visual cue to follow. The task of following the red line sends the brain a different signal and utilizes an area of the brain that is still working well.
Dr. Bryan Klaussen, a movement disorders neurologist at the Mayo Clinic, explains how easy it is for patients to use the laser device. “It makes a line appear on the floor as they’re using their walker so they can see that and step toward it as they’re moving. It’s really as simple as that.”
Video shows how the laser device helps a PD patient walk
This video shows Wayne Puckett, a patient of Dr. Van Gerpen’s at the Mayo Clinic, walking with the help of the new laser attached to his walker. Prior to using the laser, Mr. Puckett was wheelchair bound. Initially more than a little skeptical about the idea of a laser helping him walk, Puckett is now a believer.
While the device hasn’t proven as successful for everyone as it has for Mr. Puckett, it has delivered promising results for many. Dr. Klaussen sums up the success of the new device in saying, “It’s kind of a trick you’re using to trick the brain into working better.”