This Lab In Fort Worth Looks Like A Movie Set, But It’s Designed For Parkinson’s Research

University of North Texas researchers connect sensors to their subject to gather information about how their bodies move.

By Stephanie KuoJune 27, 2017 9:30 am| , , ,

From KERA:

At the UNT Health Science Center in Fort Worth, researchers are doing something unusual: They’re making people fall down. It’s all happening at the Human Movement Performance Lab, where they’re mapping how people with Parkinson’s disease and other mobility issues react to jolts and falls.

Learning from a fall 

Neva Fittz is 76 years old. She’s standing on a giant treadmill, getting clipped into a full-body harness. If she were to trip and fall, ropes that are secured to the walls and ceiling would catch and dangle her several feet above the ground. The image of Tom Cruise in “Mission Impossible” comes to mind.

“There’s that certain amount of fear there, but you just think, ‘OK, if I’m going to fall, I have to catch myself,’” Fittz says.

Fittz is also wearing head-to-toe black spandex with 54 nickel-sized balls taped all across her body – from the top of her head all the way down to her ankles.

“This is the same technology they use in some of the movies these days. Avatar uses it. Back in the day, Shrek used it,” says Dr. Evan Papa, an assistant professor at the Health Science Center, a physical therapist and a principal investigator at UNT’s Human Movement Performance Lab.

“Those markers allow us to recreate the individual in a three-dimensional picture on the computer,” he says. “And then, in our laboratory, 12 cameras that go in a full 360-degree motion around the individual pick up those reflective balls, and they allow us to look at very minute detail.:

Those details include the range of motion in joints: the knee, the wrist, the hip – and what happens to each of them when someone takes a step or falls.

Fittz begins walking on the giant treadmill. Things are going smoothly, and then a jolt in the machine causes her to stumble.

“We can induce what’s like a slipping type of scenario, or we can induce a tripping type of scenario,” Papa says. “And then, we’ll analyze how someone with Parkinson’s disease recovers from a step and how that compares to someone who’s neurologically healthy.”

Coping with instability

Parkinson’s is just one of several conditions the movement lab investigates. Researchers use the same gear to look at people with diabetes and autism. For children and teens on the autism spectrum, they’re using virtual reality to study how those subjects coordinate their sight and motor abilities.

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