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Health & Exercise Forum

Augmented reality treatment for Parkinson's Disease-Part 1

Feb 12, 2018

This column is a monthly feature of “Health & Exercise Forum”


Guest Columnist: BILL CONNELL, SPT3

Bill is a 3rd year doctor of physical therapy student at The University of Scranton and works as a student PT aide at Mackarey Physical Therapy. He is a graduate of Scranton Prep and plans to practice orthopedic and sports PT in California.  He and his classmates at completed a graduate research project on the use of augmented reality for Parkinson’s disease and will present it at The American Physical Therapy Association National Combined Sections Meeting in New Orleans in February 2018.

William Connell, SPT3

William Connell, SPT3

There are currently around one million people living in America with Parkinson’s disease (PD). That makes it the second most common, age related, neurodegenerative disease behind Alzheimer’s disease. The disease affects structures deep within the brain and changes its ability to produce and use dopamine, a neurotransmitter with many functions, including the ability to control certain aspects of movement. PD most commonly affects males and those above the age of 60, and to date there is no cure. The hallmark signs include a resting tremor, slowness of movement, rigidity or unyielding muscle tightness, and problems with balance and walking. Research suggests there may be some genetic and environmental causes for Parkinson’s but for the majority of cases, the cause is impossible to determine. While that may sound bleak, the good news is that the ongoing research for living with and treating Parkinson’s has shown encouraging results.

Parkinson’s disease has seen a surge research thanks to major foundations and prominent spokespeople like Michael J. Fox and Muhammed Ali. This recent research has provided an incredible wealth of knowledge. There are a wide variety of primary treatment options available that vary on an individual basis. These include medications, surgical interventions, and physical and/or occupational therapy. These options do work at easing symptoms, but the medications and surgical interventions can have negative side effects and therapy sessions can become expensive over the course of the disease. Luckily, research has found something to help those with Parkinson’s disease become more efficient at using their decreasing levels of dopamine, EXERCISE.

Research has proved that exercise can alleviate many of the symptoms that people with Parkinson’s live with including all of the hallmark signs, anxiety, depression, sleeplessness, and therefore improves quality of life. This research has led to the formation of many exercise groups that lead people with Parkinson’s through workouts using boxing, dancing, cycling or circuit training. These programs have made a huge impact for those who participate as they provide a social and supportive environment to do exercises people may not have ever thought they would do.

These treatments help, however they can’t be used at all times. They address many symptoms, but walking remains a problem for many people with Parkinson’s, especially in crowded or unfamiliar environments. People with Parkinson’s will typically walk with slow, uneven, shuffling steps and is often associated with a “freezing” of gait. Freezing gait occurs when walking is suddenly interrupted and the body is unable to progress with the movement. These abnormal characteristics of gait increase the risk of fall and therefore many people with Parkinson’s become more sedentary due to feeling unsafe while walking in the community. Recent technological advances may have given medical professionals a new, safe way to both train and assist people with Parkinson’s disease for community ambulation. This technology is called augmented reality. As more research about Parkinson’s disease emerges it has become evident that an active lifestyle can increase quality of life for people living with the disease. Using technology to make this lifestyle more safe and realistic may turn out to be the key to moving forward with Parkinson’s.

A group of my fellow classmates from the University of Scranton and I, conducted a systematic review of literature to find out how people with Parkinson’s could walk more safely in their environment by using augmented reality visual cues. Past research has suggested the use of audio or visual cues for training gait in therapy sessions, but until recently, these methods were difficult to translate safely to community ambulation. It is now theorized that, by using a visual cue, the person is able to use a different part of their brain to control walking, one that bypasses the basal ganglia, or the part of the brain most affected by Parkinson’s. Using this new technology could change the way people with Parkinson’s move.

Next week in this column, we’ll discuss augmented reality technology and how it works.

To find more information about Parkinson’s Disease visit: or

To see more of this research project, and others like it from the University of Scranton Physical Therapy Department, visit:

Visit your doctor regularly and listen to your body.

NEXT MONDAY – Read Dr. Paul J. Mackarey “Health & Exercise Forum!” PD – NEW TREATMENT Part 2

This article is not intended as a substitute for medical treatment. If you have questions related to your medical condition, please contact your family physician. For further inquires related to this topic email:

Paul J. Mackarey PT, DHSc, OCS is a Doctor in Health Sciences specializing in orthopaedic and sports physical therapy. Dr. Mackarey is in private practice and is an associate professor of clinical medicine at Geisinger Commonwealth School of Medicine.