Shoes fitted with lasers can help Parkinson’s patients walk normally again

Here’s a nice example of how a pre-existing technology can be repurposed to combat the effects of a debilitating disease. Researchers have found that attaching simple lasers – similar to those used in London’s Santander bikes – to the shoes of Parkinson’s sufferers can help them walk normally.

One commonly symptom of Parkinson’s disease is ‘freezing’, a feeling of being glued in place and unable to move. These episodes can last anywhere between a few seconds to a few minutes. As Parkinson’s UK explains: “You may feel like your lower half is stuck, but the top half of your body is still able to move.”

This can be highly upsetting, and often means falling off-balance. One way to help mitigate freezing is to ‘cue’ movement by concentrating on a feature on the ground, such as a particular floorboard or crack in the pavement, and to focus on stepping towards it. As freezing is more likely to happen when turning corners or in tight spaces, some therapists even recommend attaching strips of tape to the floor beneath doorways.

Researchers at the University of Twente have taken this idea a step further – by attaching lasers to shoes that project a line on the ground around 18 inches in front of the wearer. These have been designed to turn off when the foot is in motion, so only create a line when the shoe is touching the ground.

“The principle behind the laser shoes is simple: upon foot contact, the left shoe projects a line on the floor in front of the right foot,” a university blog post reads. “The patient steps over or towards the line, which activates the laser on the right shoe, and so on.”

A study of 21 Parkinson’s patients, published in Neurology, claims a 46% reduction in the number of freezing episode when the shoes were used. There was also a 57% reduction in the time subjects found themselves frozen.

“Ideally, the laser should only be activated once the blockage is detected, but we’re not quite there yet,” said researcher Murielle Ferraye, who developed the shoes. “Freezing is a very complex phenomenon.”

The results are encouraging, and Ferraye’s approach has the scope to be a low-cost solution to a distressing symptom, although the wearers may want to stay away from airports… This week the UK changed the rules around laser pointers, with five years of jail time for those that shine lasers at planes, trains and buses.

Image credit: University of Twente 

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